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Artificial intelligence now has verbal ability of 4-year old: is that progress?

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Researchers at the University of Illinois in Chicago suggest that the most advanced artificial intelligence system is now comparable to a four-year-old child in terms of verbal skills, but with absolutely no common sense.

Photo credit: Joe McKendrick

Actually, being intellectually compatible with a four-year-old is pretty impressive progress. A decade ago, Ray Kurzweil, the singularity guru, suggested that individual computers were ready to exceed the human brain in terms of raw computational power. Verbal skills are the next step -- and we've already seen IBM's Watson computer in action. Though Watson did not show any skills in small talk or chat outside of figuring out the proper questions to the terms on Jeopardy.

Then again, how many four year olds can tell you on a moment's notice where the nearest Chinese food restaurant is, a la Siri?

The University of Illinois researchers conducted an exercise comparing the intelligence of ConceptNet, a semantic AI system designed at MIT, to that of small children. Robert Sloan, professor and head of computer science at UIC, and lead author on the study, says AI systems still are newborns when it comes to common sense:

"Common sense has eluded AI engineers because it requires both a very large collection of facts and implicit facts – things so obvious that we don’t know we know them. A computer may know the temperature at which water freezes, but we know that ice is cold."

The key takeaway here is that AI -- which is increasingly being adopted into decisioning systems in areas such as healthcare and financial services -- is doing a good job retaining and spitting out data to answer natural-language queries. But it's going to take some time before these systems come close to figuring out the way the world works. Perhaps, eventually, AI will develop the skills of a second-grader:

“All of us know a huge number of things. As babies, we crawled around and yanked on things and learned that things fall. We yanked on other things and learned that dogs and cats don’t appreciate having their tails pulled. Life is a rich learning environment. We’re still very far from programs with commonsense AI that can answer comprehension questions with the skill of a child of eight.”

— By on July 15, 2013, 1:51 PM PST

Joe McKendrick

Contributing Editor

Joe McKendrick is an independent analyst who tracks the impact of information technology on management and markets. He is a co-author of the SOA Manifesto and has written for Forbes, ZDNet and Database Trends & Applications. He holds a degree from Temple University. He is based in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure