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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

For the better part of a decade, artificial intelligence has been propelled by a rocket fuel in seemingly endless supply. Deep learning, a method that allows machines to identify hidden patterns in data, has powered commercial applications like autonomous vehicles and voice assistants, and it's potentially worth trillions of dollars a year.

The other side: The rosy portrait of unstoppable progress belies a fear among some AI luminaries that things are not on the right path. In a new sort of resource curse, they say that deep learning has sucked energy away from other strains of inquiry without which AI may never approach even a child's intellectual capabilities.

The big picture: For the past 5 years, Elon Musk and others have warned of a future disaster resulting from unchecked superintelligent AI. But today, much of the field is caught in a rather more elementary tug-of-war over which avenue will imbue AI even with the capacity for basic understanding.

  • "This is a struggle that goes back decades and is at the heart of the field," says Pedro Domingos, a University of Washington professor and the head of machine learning at D.E. Shaw, an investment firm. "People on either side of it think the others are crazy."
  • "The field has gotten ahead of its skis," argues NYU's Gary Marcus, a dogged critic of the field's obsession with deep learning. "We think that if people don't change course, it's going to be destructive."

Since the field took shape in the 1950s, artificial intelligence has advanced in fits and starts, with various tribes claiming the vanguard at different points. The current period began in the early 2010s, when a trio of researchers in Canada brought AI out of a decadeslong funk by reviving deep learning, aided by new and powerful hardware.

Now, some of those same pioneers are warning against leaning too heavily on their contributions, and researchers with one foot in adjacent fields are sounding an increasingly insistent alarm about AI’s trajectory.

  • "We are telling the young generation to not take our words for the gospel — because some do, unfortunately — and explore new things, because this is how science progresses," says the University of Montreal's Yoshua Bengio, who this year shared the Turing Award, the highest accolade in computing, with Yann LeCun and Geoffrey Hinton for reinventing deep learning.
  • "The field has become a little too focused on deep learning, which means a lot of other things that should be explored aren't being explored," Domingos says. New students are "very seduced by deep learning," he says. "Everybody wants to do it."
  • Next month, Marcus will publish a book with his NYU colleague Ernest Davis called "Rebooting AI," laying out in excruciating detail where deep learning falls short.

What's missing is common sense. Without it, argues Marcus, machines will never be able to actually comprehend a passage of fiction or navigate a cluttered home to tidy up before guests arrive.

  • Right now, computers can answer basic questions about a text, but usually stumble when asked about something that isn't explicitly spelled out in the excerpt.
  • That's because deep learning systems are built on statistics and patterns, but don't have background knowledge outside the data they've been fed. By contrast, humans bring decades of understanding about the world into every single interaction.
  • Marcus and others want to build these crucial foundations, or “priors,” into AI systems. That will likely require borrowing from other approaches to AI — especially symbolic reasoning, now sometimes called “good old-fashioned AI,” which explicitly spells out relationships between things.

But, but, but: If indeed the field is headed for a dead end, the impasse certainly isn't around the next bend. "The data at this point supports continuing success," says Oren Etzioni, CEO of the Allen Institute for AI. "But it's impossible to tell how far that goes."

  • Domingos predicts deep learning alone could drive another 20 years of advances; Frank Chen, a partner at the VC firm Andreessen Horowitz, guessed 40 years in an interview with Axios last year.
  • If the progress does peter out, though, it could mean that years of single-minded effort will have crowded out the next crucial breakthrough.

Go deeper

The hard math behind America's labor shortage

Data: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Congressional Budget Office; Chart: Axios Visuals

Yes, the pandemic has created unusual temporary labor market dynamics. But in the bigger picture, the 2010s were a golden age for companies seeking cheap labor. The 2020s are not.

The big picture: In the 2010s, the massive millennial generation was entering the workforce, the massive baby bo0m generation was still hard at work, and there was a multi-year hangover from the deep recession caused by the global financial crisis.

Advocates fret Roe v. Wade's 49th anniversary could be its last

Photo: Leigh Vogel/Getty Images for Women's March Inc

As Saturday marks the 49th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court's landmark decision that legalized abortion access in the U.S., advocates warn the ruling is "more at risk now than ever."

The big picture: The Supreme Court in December heard a challenge to a Mississippi 15-week abortion ban that could throw Roe's survival into question, or at least narrow its scope.

Updated 12 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

  1. Health: Pfizer and Moderna boosters overwhelmingly prevent Omicron hospitalizations, CDC finds — Omicron pushes COVID deaths toward 2,000 per day — The pandemic-proof health care giant.
  2. Vaccines: The case for Operation Warp Speed 2.0 — Starbucks drops worker vaccine or test requirement after SCOTUS ruling — Kids' COVID vaccination rates are particularly low in rural America.
  3. Politics: Biden concedes U.S. should have done more testing — Arizona says it "will not be intimidated" by Biden on anti-mask school policies — Federal judge blocks Biden's vaccine mandate for federal workers.
  4. World: American Airlines flight to London forced to turn around over mask dispute — WHO: COVID health emergency could end this year — Greece imposes vaccine mandate for people 60 and older — Austria approves COVID vaccine mandate for adults.
  5. Variant tracker