As Brin points out, today’s computers can recognize what is in a photo, translate text, transcribe speech, suggest responses to emails, and even diagnose illnesses. With video-game like precision from half a world away, we can detect human beings at a funeral in Pakistan and blow them to smithereens. Algorithms recognize that a person who buys diapers might in the future wish to buy them. They can even tell you how to spell “pastime,” a feat that impresses me far more than the Apollo landings.
What artificial intelligences are not good at, though, is anything other than the specific narrowly focused roles for which they are programmed. The head of Google’s own AI division has suggested that the fears of many of his colleagues are misplaced, arguing that the most advanced computers in the world are less skilled at performing general tasks than the average human 4-year-old. Personally, I think he’s selling 4-year-olds short there. Show me a computer that can poop in a bath tub. But his point nevertheless stands. There is all the difference in the world between a program that can recognize a cat after being shown every picture of a cat available on the internet and what my 16-month-old daughter does every morning when she shimmies up to me and says “meow.”