Promise of deep-learning programmes

Advances in an artificial intelligence technology that can recognise patterns offer the possibility of machines that perform human activities like seeing, listening and thinking

John Markoff

Using an artificial intelligence technique inspired by theories about how the brain recognises patterns, technology companies are reporting startling gains in fields as diverse as computer vision, speech recognition and the identification of promising new molecules for designing drugs. The advances have led to widespread enthusiasm among researchers who design software to perform human activities like seeing, listening and thinking. They offer the promise of machines that converse with humans and perform tasks like driving cars and working in factories, raising the specter of automated robots that could replace human workers.

The technology, called deep learning, has already been put to use in services like Apple's Siri virtual personal assistant, which is based on Nuance Communications' speech recognition service, and in Google's Street View, which uses machine vision to identify specific addresses. But what is new in recent months is the growing speed and accuracy of deep-learning programmes, often called artificial neural networks or just "neural nets" for their resemblance to the neural connections in the brain.

"There has been a number of stunning new results with deep-learning methods," said Yann LeCun, a computer scientist at New York University who did pioneering research in handwriting recognition at Bell Laboratories. "The kind of jump we are seeing in the accuracy of these systems is very rare indeed." Artificial intelligence researchers are acutely aware of the dangers of being overly optimistic. Their field has long been plagued by outbursts of misplaced enthusiasm followed by equally striking declines. In the 1960s, some computer scientists believed that a workable artificial intelligence system was just 10 years away. In the 1980s, a wave of commercial start-ups collapsed, leading to what some people called the "AI winter."

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