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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Machines as intelligent as humans will be invented by 2029, predicts technologist Ray Kurzweil. "Nonsense," retorts roboticist Rodney Brooks. By that time, he says, machines will only be as smart as a mouse. As for humanlike intelligence — that may arrive by 2200.

Between these two forecasts — machines with human intelligence in 11 or 182 years — lies much of the rest of the artificial intelligence community, a disputatious lot who disagree on nearly everything about their field, Martin Ford, author of "Architects of Intelligence," tells Axios.

  • "Rise of the Robots" is a best-selling and well-reviewed book about a dystopian 2015 tract on the coming state of working humans in the new age of automation.
  • Today, he follows it up with "Architects of Intelligence," a collection of interviews he conducted over the last year with almost two dozen of the West's most illustrious artificial intelligence hands.

His main takeaway: "This is an unsettled field. It's not like physics."

  • AI may seem to be a smooth-running assembly line of startups, products and research projects. The reality, however, is a landscape clouded by uncertainty.
  • Ford's interviewees could not agree on where their field stands, how to push it forward or when it will reach its ultimate goal: a machine with humanlike intelligence.

Why it matters: The embryonic state in which Ford found AI — so early in its development more than a half-century after its birth that the basics are still up for grabs — suggests how far it has to go before reaching maturity. On his blog, Brooks has said that AI is only 1% of the way toward human intelligence.

The big picture: Research in the field has progressed in fits and starts since the term "artificial intelligence" was coined in the 1950s by American computer scientist John McCarthy, alternating between periods of hibernation and feverish activity.

  • The current frenzy is propelled by the wild success of deep learning, an AI technique that excels at finding patterns and identifying objects in photographs.
  • Few of Ford's subjects said deep learning will arrive at humanlike intelligence on its own — they said something new must be developed to get there. But deep learning aficionados ridicule the alternatives suggested by others.

Kurzweil, Google’s director of engineering, stands out on many fronts, Ford says. For one, he has very little patience for colleagues suffering from "engineer’s pessimism."

  • Humanlike intelligence will emerge in an exponential burst of innovation, Kurzweil said, not in linear fashion, as so many others seem to think.
  • "What Ray says is correct," says Ford. "Engineer's pessimism is what's at play; the question is who's right" — the pessimist or the optimist.
Ford's follow-up book is a collection of interviews he conducted with the West's most illustrious artificial intelligence hands.

What's next: Not all was discord. There was a remarkable confluence, for instance, on the most promising coming step.

  • Many called for an exploration of "unsupervised learning," an AI that, like a child, can wander around, poking and prodding, getting into trouble, and meanwhile learning a lot of important stuff about the world.
  • That’s a stark departure from current AI training methods, which require reams of labeled data: think photos of cats that are explicitly labeled as cats.
"Today, in order to teach a computer what a coffee mug is, we show it thousands of coffee mugs. But no child’s parents, no matter how patient and loving, ever pointed out thousands of coffee mugs to that child."
— Andrew Ng, former AI lead at Google and Baidu

Go deeper

Updated 4 hours ago - World

Mexican President López Obrador tests positive for coronavirus

Mexico's President Andrés Manuel López Obrador during a press conference at National Palace in Mexico City, Mexico, on Wednesday. Photo: Ismael Rosas/Eyepix Group/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador announced Sunday evening that he's tested positive for COVID-19.

Driving the news: López Obrador tweeted that he has mild symptoms and is receiving medical treatment. "As always, I am optimistic," he added. "We will all move forward."

4 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Sarah Huckabee Sanders to run for governor of Arkansas

Sarah Huckabee Sanders at FOX News' studios in New York City in 2019. Photo: Steven Ferdman/Getty Images

Former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders will announce Monday that she's running for governor of Arkansas.

The big picture: Sanders was touted as a contender after it was announced she was leaving the Trump administration in June 2019. Then-President Trump tweeted he hoped she would run for governor, adding "she would be fantastic." Sanders is "seen as leader in the polls" in the Republican state, notes the Washington Post's Josh Dawsey, who first reported the news.

Coronavirus has inflamed global inequality

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

History will likely remember the pandemic as the "first time since records began that inequality rose in virtually every country on earth at the same time." That's the verdict from Oxfam's inequality report covering the year 2020 — a terrible year that hit the poorest, hardest across the planet.

Why it matters: The world's poorest were already in a race against time, facing down an existential risk in the form of global climate change. The coronavirus pandemic could set global poverty reduction back as much as a full decade, according to the World Bank.