What comes to mind when we refer to "artificial intelligence"? Skynet, the Matrix, HAL9000? Science fiction books and movies where artificial intelligence plays some kind of role usually paint a disturbing image of machines, made by machines, following their own agenda to make their lives easier. They destroy or enslave their one-time masters, who are henceforth damned to an existence as living bioenergy cells in a vegetative state or tramping through post-apocalyptic deserts.
What was then still science fiction for filmmakers has since made steps towards becoming a tangible reality today for scriptwriters. A deep learning algorithm developed by MIT recently managed to detect sarcasm in Twitter posts with an accuracy rate of 82% - human test subjects only managed this in 76% of cases. And it's been a long time since we were surprised about the ability of chess and go AIs to wipe the floor with human grandmasters with alarming regularity. So are we facing a machine rebellion?
Even two of the tech scene's heavyweights are in disagreement about this question, with Facebook head Mark Zuckerberg and Tesla CEO Elon Musk arguing about it. Although both are reliant on artificial intelligence in their business - Zuckerberg's social network aims to surpass Google's lead, while Musk's electric vehicles rely on AI technology for completely self-driving cars - they have come to different conclusions. While Zuckerberg expects artificial intelligence to provide benefits in the long term, Musk has warned on several occasions of the risk inherent in autonomously learning, intelligent machines, and has urged government regulation of AI systems.
Until we reach that point, there are already digital assistants, whether they're named Alexa, Siri, Home or Cortana, who present themselves in video commercials as willing organizers of their owners' everyday lives. "Alexa, put headache pills on my list to do," asks a wife at the end of her tether as she anxiously awaits the visit of her mother-in-law. And if you want to know what actor Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson is doing right now, just ask: "Hey Siri, what are you and The Rock up to?"
It's actually very practical - although such assistants do still tend to let themselves be duped. Some months ago, Burger King attempted to trick Google Home by having a TV commercial feature an employee of the fast food chain at the end asking "OK Google, what's the Whopper Burger?" And indeed, the speakers of the viewers' Google devices reacted by quoting the Whopper's Wikipedia page.
Naturally, it didn't take long for various Wikipedia contributors to modify the original article so that the advertisement became a string of bad language. Ultimately, the commercial might have got the fast food conglomerate additional publicity, but also indicated one of the weaknesses of these digital assistants. What would have happened if a company had said in their commercial, "OK Google, order 100,000 MOSFETs for me from Rutronik?" It's fairly safe to say that this vulnerability has since been removed.
But still, the question remains - if we continue to delegate more and more of our day-to-day tasks to our little digital helpers, managing appointments, ordering online and reminding us of this and that, aren't we making ourselves dependent on major corporations? Already today, the Siris and Alexas of this world are "listening in" on millions of households around the clock. Just what are they transmitting to their masters at the corporate headquarters of Apple, Google, Microsoft and Amazon?
It's a reasonable assumption that major businesses are subconsciously manipulating us with these digital assistants. Controversial private taxi service Uber hit the headlines in May, because the app was able to predict using AI how much a passenger was willing to pay for their route. So a lot is already possible right now. Whether these opportunities have all been exploited is something we'll probably see in the coming years.
But of course, we don't want to paint too gloomy a picture of the future - given certain boundaries, AI can do a lot of good. A digital doctor's assistant, which helps human doctor's to make precise diagnoses, AI that predicts an imminent emergency and notifies emergency doctors before the person even notices that they are unwell - these are fields in which artificial intelligence can save lives. AIs can also be used to plan and manage a more sustainable, more efficient utilization of our natural resources - so that our planet can be preserved for longer than the 100 years that Stephen Hawking predicted!