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Johnny Depp in Transcendence. Photograph: Allstar/Warner Brothers/Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar
Cinema audiences are subjected to a mind-boggling fusion of the human consciousness
with computing power in Johnny Depp blockbuster Transcendence, but the sinister-
seeming world of artificial intelligence is entering the mainstream with Silicon Valley
upstarts Google and Facebook.
The film, released last weekend, has been savaged by critics against the backdrop of a
futuristic arms race in the real world. Google and Facebook have joined Amazon in
buying up drone firms to beam internet connections from space, investing in robotics,
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Google, Facebook and Amazon race to
blur lines between man and machine
Johnny Depp film Transcendence highlights battle for merging
known as 'the singularity' – which is closer than we thought
Juliette Garside
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The Guardian, Monday 28 April 2014 08.49 EDT
machine learning and virtual reality technology. But the realm of artificial intelligence
could contain the greatest prize, achieving a union of man and machine that is often
referred to as "the singularity" – a phrase first used by the American futurologist Ray
Kurzweil. The accepted wisdom is that such a leap, if it can happen, is at least 30 years
away.
Experts now argue that the moment is closer than you think and Kurzweil is one of the
figures accelerating our encounter with the future, as Google's director of engineering.
"The amount of money that Google and other commercial companies will pour into
robotics and artificial intelligence could at last take it truly into the commercial world
where we actually do have smart robots roaming our streets," says Noel Sharkey,
professor of artificial intelligence and robotics at the University of Sheffield.
Turning the classic industrial investment model on its head, consumer technology
groups are using their cash mountains to superfund areas of research that were until
now the preserve of governments, defence companies and academics. Over the past
year, Google has bought seven robotics companies, including Boston Dynamics, whose
previous work building humanoid machines was largely paid for by the US military. It
has bought firms that specialise in natural language processing, gesture recognition, and
more recently in machine learning, highlighted by the acquisition of British startup
Deepmind – bought in January for $400m (£238m).
"Silicon Valley's involvement is creating right now an enormous acceleration," says Per
Roman, a founding partner at technology investment bank GPBullhound. "It is turning
into a real talent magnet. It is often small teams that come up with breakthrough
inventions and you are much more willing to take the risk if there is a chance you could
get bought rather than ending up in a dark room in some military agency."
And it is not just AI that is persuading Google to open its chequebook. Like Facebook, it
is also investing in beaming the internet from the sky. Google has acquired drone maker
Titan Aerospace, while Facebook now owns Somerset based Ascenta. Facebook has also
splashed out $2bn on Oculus, a maker of virtual reality headsets. Amazon, meanwhile,
has held up the prospect that one day its goods could be delivered by air to our doorstep
before we have even realised we need to order them.
Last year's $3.2bn purchase of Nest, a designer of internet connected smoke alarms and
thermostats, suggest Google's ambitions are domestic. "It looks to me like they want to
take the internet out of the desktop and put it into our everyday lives," says Sharkey.
"Their acquisition of Nest was very telling. Add to that robotics and AI companies and
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you have the internet walking around in the world alongside us."
For those struggling to understand why Google or Amazon should want to invest in self
driving cars, internet drones and robotics, the answer is data. Masses of it. The parking
meter in your street, the collar on your cat, the thermostat in your home will emit
signals that can be picked up from anywhere, and Google will be listening.
If Silicon Valley's best minds succeed, their software will not only be listening, it will be
understanding and anticipating. When it comes to mundane chores such as stocking the
fridge or ordering birthday presents, software will be doing our thinking for us.
DeepMind's technology draws on a user's browsing behaviour, gathering information on
their interests and questions, to recognise patterns, learn about human behaviour and
make recommendations. According to co-founder Mustafa Suleyman, this could be used
to suggest purchases, such as books or films.
"All these concepts that people have been talking about for 20 years are happening at
large scale now," says technology investor Dharmash Mistry, founder of data driven
cosmetics business Blow.
"When you use Google search you have to work out what you are looking for and the
words to use to find it. That will move to the search engine having data on you to give
you customised searches. A lot of healthcare is dealing with an ailment once you have it.
This new model is about getting you to prevent these issues before they happen. After
the glass of wine and meal, your smartphone will book you into the gym."
For some scientists, such as wearable computing pioneer Thad Starner, who is a key
engineering figure behind Google Glass, man and machine are already merging. "I
would argue that we're currently living the singularity," he said in a recent interview.
"Where the tool stops and the mind begins will start becoming blurry."
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