Sign up for our daily briefing

Make your busy days simpler with Axios AM/PM. Catch up on what's new and why it matters in just 5 minutes.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Catch up on the day's biggest business stories

Subscribe to Axios Closer for insights into the day’s business news and trends and why they matter

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Stay on top of the latest market trends

Subscribe to Axios Markets for the latest market trends and economic insights. Sign up for free.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Sports news worthy of your time

Binge on the stats and stories that drive the sports world with Axios Sports. Sign up for free.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Tech news worthy of your time

Get our smart take on technology from the Valley and D.C. with Axios Login. Sign up for free.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Get the inside stories

Get an insider's guide to the new White House with Axios Sneak Peek. Sign up for free.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Catch up on coronavirus stories and special reports, curated by Mike Allen everyday

Catch up on coronavirus stories and special reports, curated by Mike Allen everyday

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Denver news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Denver

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Des Moines news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Des Moines

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Twin Cities news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Twin Cities

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Tampa Bay news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Tampa Bay

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Charlotte news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Charlotte

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Illustration: Caresse Haaser, Rebecca Zisser / Axios

Some researchers and business leaders are putting artificial intelligence — in its current and aspirational forms — on the same pedestal of human invention and innovation as fire, electricity and the light bulb. But other experts say we will not know for a long time whether AI will ever merit such lofty imagery.

"It could be. If AI really leads to the birth of intelligences greater than humans', it will arguably be the most important event in the history of life on Earth since, well, humans. But that's a very big if, of course. In the meantime, AI's impact is far smaller than electricity or fire's (and in fact, you could say that AI is part of electricity's impact, since it wouldn't exist without it)."
— Pedro Domingos, professor of computer science, University of Washington

If this were the Stone Age, where we’re at with AI is “we know what wheels are but not how to build them,” Gary Marcus, a psychology professor at New York University and founder of Geometric Intelligence, an AI company acquired by Uber in 2016, told Axios. "But wheels are a whole lot easier to build than AI."

Consider this: Fire arguably made humanity. Taming it more than a million years ago brought our ancestors safety from predators and allowed us to leave the trees. When early humans learned to use it to cook food, it provided more calories that “jump started a brain that was getting larger already,” says Jeremy DeSilva, an associate professor of anthropology at Dartmouth College. (And making fire when it doesn't happen incidentally is a completely different animal altogether, he says. That probably didn't happen until 30,000 years ago.) Like toolmaking before it and farming after, reining in fire was a cultural innovation that spawned a biological change to our species.

“Without the control of fire, I don’t think there is a Homo sapiens,” says DeSilva.

Where it's at: Machines employing neural networks — one AI method — have advanced at recognizing images and translating language. They classify data fed into the system and learn to recognize patterns from which they can predict what is coming next in sequence or sentence. Twenty years ago, language processors got one out of 3 words wrong and weren't usable, says Thomas Dietterich, an emeritus professor of computer science at Oregon State University. "It is astonishing that we now have Skype translator."

These advances have led Elon Musk and others to worry about superintelligent machines.

But these AIs do not make inferences from limited information (i.e. when you put something in a box, the AI doesn't understand that it will stay there until it is removed) and they lack the ability to have a conversation.

“I don’t think we’ve come close to fulfilling that promise yet,” says Marcus, who recently published a much-discussed paper about the limits of the AI technique deep learning. Speaking this week to the Financial Times, Marcus said hyping of AI could lead to a third "AI winter," a new period of arrested development in the field.

Profound possibilities

As AI is developed and deployed in various industries and disciplines, it's realistic to expect it will succeed in helping in some ways and be frustrating in others. “I think [AI] has potential in the long term to be really profound in the same way something like genome editing has potential to be profound,” says Marcus. "It is certainly the case that it could be but the jury is still out."

Biological: Whether and how AI and technology more broadly will have a biological impact on our species — like fire or farming — is unknown. "For all the other events, there is a feedback loop. We can see the biological impact with the other transitions but with the technological transition we don’t know," says DeSilva. We aren't at the point of determining whether screen time, for example, will change our species' vision or how high-functioning neural prosthetic devices might affect us.

Philosophical: "Are there things that can be known by a computer that we cannot ever understand? I don't know," says Dietterich. Pointing to top Go players who are studying DeepMind's AlphaZero — which learns to play chess and Go without a training set — to improve their own games, he says, "Now we can use computers to understand things that we don’t know and then try to understand them. And that makes us better."

Go deeper

16 mins ago - Technology

Scoop: TikTok launching jobs service for Gen Z

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

TikTok is testing a tool for brands to recruit employees, sources tell Axios.

Details: The pilot program is designed to help people find jobs on TikTok and connect with companies looking to find candidates. It's also meant to help brands use TikTok as a recruitment channel.

Crypto media boom

Data: SimilarWeb; Chart: Axios Visuals

A slew of new crypto media companies have gained enormous traction over the past year, thanks to the digital currency craze taking over Wall Street.

Why it matters: “For the first time ever, crypto has become relevant to the global macro-economic conversation, and therefore, the investment conversation," says Jason Yanowitz, co-founder of Blockworks, a financial media brand catered to investors.

Dan Primack, author of Pro Rata
1 hour ago - Economy & Business

SoftBank and StubHub vets form new SPAC

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Jeffrey Housenbold, who recently stepped down as a managing partner of SoftBank Vision Fund, has formed a new SPAC with Sukhinder Singh Cassidy, who was president of ticket resale firm StubHub until it was acquired last year by Viagogo.

Why it matters: The death of SPACs has been greatly exaggerated.