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Artificial Intelligence - Yorick Wilks ****

Artificial intelligence is one of those topics where it's very easy to spin off into speculation, whether it's about machine conciousness or AI taking over the world (and don't get me onto the relatively rare connection to robots - cover designer please note). All the experience of AI to date has been that it has been made feasible far slower than originally predicted, and that it faces dramatic limitations. So, for example, self-driving cars may be okay in limited circumstances, but are nowhere near ready for the commute home. Similarly, despite all the moves forward in AI technology, computers are so-so at recognising objects after learning from thousands of examples - sometimes fooled by apparently trivial surface patterning - where humans can recognise items from a handful of examples.

Even so, we can't deny that AI is having an influence on our lives and Yorick Wilks, emeritus professor of AI at the University of Sheffield, is ideally placed to give us a picture of how our current AI technology was developed, what is possible now and what may come in the future, in a compact introduction to a very important field.

Although many of the familiar basics are here, Wilks also gives us some novel considerations, whether it is the relationship of web searching to AI, what the guts of an AI program is like, or the field of AI companions for humans (no, probably not robots), which Wilks believes will be very significant in the future. He also works through the doom-mongering from some commentators, showing that while there are areas that we need to be seriously concerned about - such as the influence of algorithms we don't understand - many of the bugbears of AI are likely not to be real issues.

As Wilks points out in his summary, though AI has had some impressive successes, it is still nowhere near the goal of producing a form of general intelligence, and seems unlikely to do so - for a machine to be good at, for example, playing a game such as chess, Jeopardy or Go does not require true intelligence. But there is no doubt of the importance of AI and Wilks gives us a very distinctive and thought-provoking look at this burgeoning field.
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Review by Brian Clegg 

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