ibm-watsonCan a computer learn to think for itself, independent of human input? It’s the question Alan Turing posited 50 years ago, and it remains the key distinction between automation and artificial intelligence. Automation is everywhere, in our Excel sheets at work and our smart devices at home. If/then statements programmed to make life easier for us. But automation is limited by the programmer behind it. A good program will deliver the perfect then to your if, but no combination of if/then statements can ever account for the limitless variations of the world around us.

We’re getting better, though. Way better. In the past few years the linear if/then approach has made way for a multi-layered one where each layer influences but does not necessarily dictate the rest. It’s called “deep learning” and it’s modeled after the human brain. IBM’s Watson uses it, and not just to crush Jeopardy. With an ability to process libraries of data and weigh multiple considerations across them, Watson is able to deliver strikingly insightful recommendations in the medical field.

aiWould you trust a computer to diagnose you, though? How about to drive you around? Uber is releasing their first fleet of self-driving cars in Pittsburgh this month. In both cases human oversight and ultimately human accountability are still employed. The question is, what are we transitioning toward? Can we mimic our brain’s decision-making process so accurately that constant human oversight is no longer needed? Will the gap between programmable and human logic continue to shrink until it’s imperceptible? And once that happens, how will we use it?

It’s a favorite subject in dystopian sci-fi, but so long as we avoid passing along the whole “self-interest” component of the human brain, I’m on board. Especially with life at home. The “convenience” of voice recognition for example used to be more trouble than it was worth. Now Amazon Echo is one of the most beloved products in home electronics. With nuanced understanding and complex reasoning getting better every day, soon music might play in your home not because it’s 8pm on a Saturday night. It just knew you wanted to hear music.