Teaching Machines to Understand Us

By | August 6, 2015

A reincarnation of one of the oldest ideas in artificial intelligence could finally make it possible to truly converse with our computers. And Facebook has a chance to make it happen first.
The first time Yann LeCun revolutionized artificial intelligence, it was a false dawn. It was 1995, and for almost a decade, the young Frenchman had been dedicated to what many computer scientists considered a bad idea: that crudely mimicking certain features of the brain was the best way to bring about intelligent machines. But LeCun had shown that this approach could produce something strikingly smart—and useful. Working at Bell Labs, he made software that roughly simulated neurons and learned to read handwritten text by looking at many different examples. Bell Labs’ corporate parent, AT&T, used it to sell the first machines capable of reading the handwriting on checks and written forms. To LeCun and a few fellow believers in artificial neural networks, it seemed to mark the beginning of an era in which machines could learn many other skills previously limited to humans. It wasn’t.

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