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Artificial Intelligence Specialist  What They Do

Just the Facts


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dotArtificial intelligence (AI) experts apply their skills in engineering and computer science to create computers and software programs that can think for themselves. Scientists must be able to recreate every tiny part of the thinking process just to get a computer to walk, understand a question or write music.

dotWhile sci-fi imagination can achieve that in the flicker of an eye, experts predict it will take centuries before we really have a thinking, walking, talking robot like Lieutenant Commander Data of the television series Star Trek.

dotNo matter how clever computers are, they're never smarter than the people who create them. This is the challenge of artificial intelligence.

"It took humans 50 years to design the paper clip," says Tim Finin. He is a professor and researcher in artificial intelligence at the University of Maryland.

"How long is it going to take to create true intelligence? What's worse is that the public think we're ready to have a Data in 10 years' time, when I think it'll be more like 1,000 or even 10,000."

dotWork in artificial intelligence began in earnest in the 1950s. Yet it has only been in the last 15 years that software has allowed computers to communicate with one another through networks and the Internet.

dotAt the root of artificial intelligence is one of the biggest philosophical questions ever: what is knowledge?

dotFred Popowich has been in the AI field for more than 15 years. His work included a project to program computers to translate from Spanish into English.

"You have to use the ideas of the past -- stand on other people's shoulders -- to get to today," he says.

dotResearchers have developed artificial intelligence systems that can be compared with the abilities of a small child. According to Sue Abu-Hakima, a researcher in the field, AI is still only trying to get computers to perform the most basic tasks like providing an answer to a simple question. So, artificial intelligence has a long way to go.

dotStill, the promise of this technology is very interesting to the business world. Increasingly, private industry is supporting research in this field because it offers opportunities for considerable profit.

dotWithin the field of telecommunications alone, companies are scrambling to get artificial intelligence into devices so that they can communicate with one another. That will take the computer beyond the realm of a regular tool and make it an irreplaceable fixture that will help people organize their lives.

"Work that's being done in laboratories today will take 10 years before it's out as a product," Abu-Hakima says.

dotExpert systems are among the new tools being designed by scientists to help humans in their daily lives. It's a small part of the world of artificial intelligence.

Some expert knowledge systems can help colleges screen student applications. They also help foresters find out what kinds of bugs are damaging Douglas fir cones, and help companies run their factories after their most experienced workers have retired.

dotIntelligent appliances and the intelligent home are big items on the horizon. A lot of companies, such as Whirlpool and General Electric (GE), are working in this area.

Computer networking is another area of interest to AI specialists. Experts in this area work to make it easier to find information from the world's biggest and most complex database -- the Internet. These so-called smart agents would be more "intelligent" than ordinary search engines.

dotComputer scientists normally work in offices, laboratories or universities. Given current technology, telecommuting -- working from home -- is possible. "AI people work in private industry and in universities," says Popowich.

dotThere are few physical requirements in this field, according to Popowich. Anyone who can work with computers can work in AI. Since artificial intelligence specialists work with computers, however, they risk suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome, eye and neck strain and back problems.

At a Glance

Create computers that can think for themselves

  • This work involves figuring out what knowledge really is
  • Work in artificial intelligence began in earnest in the 1950s
  • An advanced degree in engineering or computing science is required