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Artificial intelligence: Getting as good as the real thing

Three of the biggest names in AI see the field changing the way we live.

Just as electricity transformed everything we do, artificial intelligence -- think really, really smart machines -- will upend industries from retail to finance to transportation.

And that will reshape our world and change our lives, said a panel of experts Monday discussing "The State of AI" at the EmTech Digital Conference in San Francisco. The transformation, though, will rest on humbler underpinnings. In much the same way that all companies learned to make use of the Internet, they'll start to adapt to AI by expanding their data teams.

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Three of the biggest experts in artificial intelligence, Andrew Ng, Peter Norvig and Oren Etzioni, say despite its recent boom, AI still has a long way to go.

Jeremy Portje/PortjePhoto

"Today, we're in a stage where companies are hiring a chief data officer," said Andrew Ng, the chief scientist at China's search giant, Baidu. "Maybe in the future they will hire a chief AI officer as well."

Tech companies are investing heavily in AI. Google is staking its future on the technology, developing a voice-powered version of its namesake search engine that will inhabit your phone, smartwatch and car. Last month, Facebook launched a new Applied Machine Learning group that the social network claims helps its more than 1.6 billion users find content more quickly.

Sometimes, the efforts go awry. Microsoft launched an AI-powered chatbot, called Tay, only to quickly pull the plug after it got gamed and started tweeting racist and pornographic remarks.

Innovators, including Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking, have warned that AI might be dangerous. Musk, who likened AI to "summoning the demon," helped launch a $1 billion research group called OpenAI.

Peter Norvig, Google's director of research, and Oren Etzioni, CEO of the Allen Institute of Artificial Intelligence, joined Ng in celebrating AI's ascent. They cited AlphaGo, a Google software project that beat one of the best Go players in the world.

The three agreed, though, that AI still has long way to go. There are still many challenges to using machine learning, the process by which computers teach themselves tasks by interpreting large sets of data.

"We're making progress, but how far does it go?" Etzioni said. "It's too early. It's too speculative to worry about AI turning evil."