Forget the scare stories:

AI is produced by engineers and its creators have the capability to design it in ways that enhance, rather than hinder, peoples’ lives

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“I propose to consider the question, ‘can machines think?’ This should begin with definitions of the meaning of the word ‘machine’ and ‘think’.”

So wrote computing pioneer Alan Turing in the introduction to his seminal paper on machine intelligence, published in the journal Mind in 1950.

That paper – introducing the ‘imitation game’, Turing’s adversarial test for machine intelligence, in which a human must decide whether what we now call a chatbot is a human or a computer – helped spark the field of research which later became more widely known as artificial intelligence.

Whilst no researcher has yet made a general purpose thinking machine – what’s known as artificial general intelligence – that passes Turing’s test, a wide variety of special purpose AIs have been created to focus on, and solve, very specific problems, such as image and speech recognition, and defeating chess and Go champions.

However, whenever AI hits trouble – such as when prototype autonomous cars cause accidents, robots look like eliminating jobs, or AI algorithms access personal data without permission, the news media surfaces major concerns about a societal downside to AI.

One trope in such stories is that AI is a hard-to-harness technology, one that could run away from human control at any time. But the truth is far more nuanced. At Microsoft, the aim is to use AI as a tool just like any other – one that’s used by engineers to achieve an end that strongly benefits people in one way or another, whether they are at home, or at work in fields as diverse as education, healthcare, aerospace, manufacturing or retail.

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“We are trying to teach machines to learn so that they can do things that humans currently do, but in turn they should help people by augmenting their experiences,” says Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella.

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