A few months ago I made the trek to the sylvan campus of the IBM research labs in Yorktown Heights, New York, to catch an early glimpse of the fast-arriving, long-overdue future of artificial intelligence. This was the home of Watson, the electronic genius that conquered Jeopardy! in 2011. The original Watson is still here-it’s about the size of a bedroom, with 10 upright, refrigerator-shaped machines forming the four walls. The tiny interior cavity gives technicians access to the jumble of wires and cables on the machines’ backs. It is surprisingly warm inside, as if the cluster were alive.
Today’s Watson is very different. It no longer exists solely within a wall of cabinets but is spread across a cloud of open-standard servers that run several hundred “instances” of the AI at once. Like all things cloudy, Watson is served to simultaneous customers anywhere in the world, who can access it using their phones, their desktops, or their own data servers. This kind of AI can be scaled up or down on demand. Because AI improves as people use it, Watson is always getting smarter; anything it learns in one instance can be immediately transferred to the others. And instead of one single program, it’s an aggregation of diverse software engines-its logic-deduction engine and its language-parsing engine might operate on different code, on different chips, in different locations-all cleverly integrated into a unified stream of intelligence.
Consumers can tap into that always-on intelligence directly, but also through third-party apps that harness the power of this AI cloud. Like many parents of a bright mind, IBM would like Watson to pursue a medical career, so it should come as no surprise that one of the apps under development is a medical-diagnosis tool. Most of the previous attempts to make a diagnostic AI have been pathetic failures, but Watson really works. When, in plain English, I give it the symptoms of a disease I once contracted in India, it gives me a list of hunches, ranked from most to least probable. The most likely cause, it declares, is Giardia-the correct answer. This expertise isn’t yet available to patients directly; IBM provides access to Watson’s intelligence to partners, helping them develop user-friendly interfaces for subscribing doctors and hospitals. “I believe something like Watson will soon be the world’s best diagnostician-whether machine or human,” says Alan Greene, chief medical officer of Scanadu, a startup that is building a diagnostic device inspired by the Star Trek medical tricorder and powered by a cloud AI. “At the rate AI technology is improving, a kid born today will rarely need to see a doctor to get a diagnosis by the time they are an adult.”
Medicine is only the beginning. All the major cloud companies, plus dozens of startups, are in a mad rush to launch a Watson-like cognitive service. According to quantitative analysis firm Quid, AI has attracted more than $17 billion in investments since 2009. Last year alone more than $2 billion was invested in 322 companies with AI-like technology. Facebook and Google have recruited researchers to join their in-house AI research teams. Yahoo, Intel, Dropbox, LinkedIn, Pinterest, and Twitter have all purchased AI companies since last year. Private investment in the AI sector has been expanding 62 percent a year on average for the past four years, a rate that is expected to continue.
Amid all this activity, a picture of our AI future is coming into view, and it is not the HAL 9000-a discrete machine animated by a charismatic (yet potentially homicidal) humanlike consciousness-or a Singularitan rapture of superintelligence. The AI on the horizon looks more like Amazon Web Services-cheap, reliable, industrial-grade digital smartness running behind everything, and almost invisible except when it blinks off. This common utility will serve you as much IQ as you want but no more than you need. Like all utilities, AI will be supremely boring, even as it transforms the Internet, the global economy, and civilization. It will enliven inert objects, much as electricity did more than a century ago. Everything that we formerly electrified we will now cognitize. This new utilitarian AI will also augment us individually as people (deepening our memory, speeding our recognition) and collectively as a species. There is almost nothing we can think of that cannot be made new, different, or interesting by infusing it with some extra IQ. In fact, the business plans of the next 10,000 startups are easy to forecast: Take X and add AI. This is a big deal, and now it’s here.