What is the mind? Is it simply a collective sum of networked neural impulses? Is it less or more than that? Where does it begin and where does it end? What is its purpose? Is it the soul? These are questions that have haunted human consciousness for much of its existence. But in this increasingly digital age, we gain exciting new insight into the nature of consciousness by artificially simulating it.

Artificial intelligence is somewhat loosely defined, but can generally be understood as a subset of another field called biomimetics. This science (interchangeably referred to as "biomimicry") imitates natural processes within technological systems, using nature as a model for artificial innovation. In nature, evolution rewards beneficial traits by proliferating them throughout the natural ecosystem, and technology shares similar tendencies, in that the technology that yields the most useful results is that which thrives.

As machines develop the ability to learn, compute and act with a level of creativity and individual agency that is virtually human, we as people are confronted with increasingly complex but imminent questions surrounding the nature of AI and its role in our future. But before we delve too deeply into the semantics of artificial intelligence, let’s first examine three ways in which it is already beginning to manifest in our world.

Recognition

Human perception is like a set of input devices on a computer. Visual data hits the human retina and then flows through the optic nerve to the brain. Sound waves hit the outer and then middle ear before the inner ear begins the neuronal encoding process. Touch, smell and taste similarly transform external stimuli to internal neurological activity. And our memory serves as a database within which this sensory information can be cross-referenced, identified and put to use.

The computer reflects human anatomy in its configuration of input, transduction and storage. Cloud technology has evolved into a sort of collective consciousness from which universal ideas and shared knowledge may be submitted, vetted and distributed. Image and sound recognition software use camera and microphone hardware to input and cross-reference data with the cloud, in turn outputting an explanation to the user of that which was seen or heard. Recognition apps like CamFind and Shazam basically serve as sensory search engines, while the fields of robotics and automated transportation build machines that use recognition technology to navigate and act within the world with unprecedented independence. (For more on AI's attempts to become more human, see Will Computers Be Able to Imitate the Human Brain?)

CAPTCHA (Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart) has served as one of the most effective validation tools in internet security for many years now. It is well-known for blocking automated password breaches with a challenge-response interface that has for long only been human-recognizable. However, a team known as Vicarious has managed to develop a breach for the software using a program that simulates human thought process. The node-based software assesses the CAPTCHA image in stages, and like a human mind, is able to break elements of the image into components that are compared with language characters in a database. CAPTCHA has long been emblematic of the difference between machine intelligence and human intelligence. But with Vicarious’s new innovation, the line between the two is being blurred.

Prediction

There is a great deal of economic incentive for predictive technology. The discipline is used extensively in marketing by gauging customer behavior and data in order to anticipate commercial activity and maximize profits. Analytics help businesses determine where to expend their efforts and achieve the most desirable results, and to help them make the predictions needed to compete in the modern digital economy. The technology is also implemented into some government and policing efforts, which some view as highly useful while others see it as potentially harmful, as the tactics could employ biased statistics and perpetuate discriminatory practices.

But with predictive analytics improving disciplines like medicine and environmental science, there also exists a great deal of potential for social good in both the private and public sectors. Predictive health IT systems work to improve accuracy and efficiency in health science, and elevate preventative medicine to a level that virtually automates it. Intelligent systems employ prediction in order to identify future benefits and avoid potential problems, and can provide assistance to people before they even realize that they need it. (To learn more about predictive analytics, see Predictive Analytics in the Real World: What Does It Look Like?)

Some technology business leaders prefer the term "augmented intelligence" over "artificial intelligence" and argue that threats posed by the technology are very minor compared with their potential benefits. However, some are not so optimistic.

Activism

There are many renowned scientists and technology innovators who believe that artificial intelligence can potentially have catastrophic consequences. Among them is Elon Musk, who now cochairs a nonprofit research organization called OpenAI. Musk, in fact, has stated that he believes artificial intelligence could be humanity’s greatest existential threat, and through OpenAI, he and his team are attempting to cultivate ideas and initiatives in AI that will be geared toward the greater public good. The organization intends to develop AI systems that are open-source friendly, and is currently focused on deep learning research.

Musk justifies the initiative by arguing that it is better to participate in artificial intelligence early enough in its development that it can be steered toward human progress rather than private gain, but without depending on regulation to dictate its terms and purpose. OpenAI maintains a vision for decentralized and crowdsourced technology that maximizes AI’s potential benefits for humankind.

Conclusion

Whether or not the technology will benefit humanity is inherently difficult to predict. But one thing is almost certain: whoever controls artificially intelligent technology in its early stages will wield considerable power and influence over all of human civilization. Money, labor, government and media are just a few facets of society that will change dramatically by these innovations. And it is up to us to set the technology on the right path while we still have the power to do so.