Monday, Jul 28, 2014 04:17 am est

From sci-fi to real life — the advances of artificial intelligence, part I

Posted on January 11, 2013 | by Marcelo Cicconet

It is an early morning of the just-arrived winter. People I can see on the street from my window wear heavy coats, but it’s unclear how cold it is. I can open the window and let my natural skin sensors grab an approximate measurement, but I realize a much more accurate value can be obtained by pressing a button. “Siri, what’s the temperature outside?” I ask, with a Brazilian accent that most Americans think is Russian. “Brr! It is 32 degrees outside,” answers the piece of rectangular glass I hold. It is a female voice, with an accent of her own. Artificial. That’s probably how I would describe it.

The application, whose name is an acronym for Speech Integration and Recognition Interface, has encountered a wave of sarcastic, philosophical, flirtatious and mundane questions, since it was made available to certain Apple iOS devices in October 2011. Countless jokes featuring Siri made their way through the nodes of the social-media graph, and books about her witty personality have been printed. But if you could take Siri in a trip through time to when your grandmother was 10 (fear not, the time travel paradox involves your grandfather), she would definitely qualify your talking device as “magic.” Perhaps she would even call Siri intelligent.

The question of whether or not Siri is intelligent may be difficult to answer; indeed, according to the definition she grabs from Wolfram Alpha when asked, there is no consensus about what it means to be intelligent — nor about what “meaning” means, as a matter of fact, but enough about metalinguistics. Below, I’ll discuss intelligence. But first, come back from your time travel and book a trip into your brain. This one is easier: simply think of your grandmother.

By doing so, a specific area in the back of your brain, responsible for face recognition, activates. Moreover, it has been suggested that a single neuron fires when you think of her. It’s the “grandmother neuron” and, as the hypothesis goes, there’s one for any particular object you are able to identify. While the existence of such particular neurons is pure conjecture, at least two things about the architecture of the visual cortex have been deduced. One, functional specialization — there are areas designated to recognize
specific categories of objects, such as faces and places. Two, hierarchical processing — visual information is analyzed in layers, with the level of abstraction increasing as the signal travels deeper in the architecture.

Computational implementations of so-called deep learning algorithms have been around for decades, but they were usually outperformed by shallow architectures. Since 2006, new techniques have been discovered for training deep architectures, and substantial improvements happened in algorithms aimed to tasks that are easily performed by humans, like recognizing objects, voice, faces and handwritten digits.

Siri uses deep learning for speech recognition, and in Google’s Street View for the identification of specific addresses. In 2011, an implementation running in 1,000 computers was able to identify objects from 20,000 different categories with record — though still poor — accuracy.

These achievements rekindled popular interest in Artificial Intelligence. Well, not as popular as vampire literature, but definitely among computer scientists. While the technological improvements are substantial, especially when compared to what happened, or didn’t happen, in previous decades, we are closer than ever to achieving AI resembling a human’s intelligence.

This technology is astounding, but we are still far from the proper implementation. As AI researcher Andrew Ng pointed out, “My gut feeling is that we still don’t quite have the right algorithm yet.”

The reason Ng feels this way is that these algorithms are still, in general, severely outperformed by humans. You can recognize your grandmother, for instance, just with a quick glance, by the way she walks. Computers can barely detect and recognize faces from a head-on view. Similar issues exist for recognizing songs, identifying objects in pictures and movies and a wide range of other tasks.

Whether comparison with human performance as a good criterion for intelligence is debatable. But I’ll leave that discussion for part two.

Marcelo Cicconet is a contributing columnist. Email him at


profile portrait
Felipe De La Hoz

Multimedia Editor | Felipe De La Hoz is a Colombian national studying journalism at the College of Arts and Sciences. Having been born in Colombia and raised in the United States, Mexico and Brazil, Felipe is a trilingual travel aficionado and enjoys working in varied and difficult environments. Apart from his photography, Felipe enjoys investigative reporting and interviews, interviewing the likes of Colombian ex-M-19 guerrilla fighters and controversial politician Jimmy McMillan. He has covered everything from governmental conferences to full-blown riots, as well as portraiture shoots and dining photography. Having worked under Brazilian photojournalists for Reuters and AFP, Felipe hopes to one day work on demanding journalistic projects and contribute to the global news cycle.

Ann Schmidt

News Editor | Ann is a liberal studies sophomore who lived in Florence during her freshman year. She plans on double-majoring in journalism and political science and is always busy. She is constantly making lists and she loves to laugh.


Daniel Yeom

Daniel started at the Features desk of WSN last Spring, writing restaurant reviews whilst indulging on free food and consequently getting fat. Last Fall, he was the dining editor, and he this semester he is senior editor. Daniel is in Gallatin (living the dream) studying Food & Travel Narratives, incorporating aspects of Food Studies, Journalism, and Media, Culture, and Communication. He loves food more than life itself.

Hannah Luu

Deputy Multimedia Editor | Hannah Luu is a ridiculously great Deputy Multimedia Editor. She is a sophomore from Northern California. If you think Northern California means San Francisco you might need to closely examine a map. She is passionate about NPR and being half Asian.

  • How to join:

    The Washington Square News holds open weekly budget meetings at its office located at 838 Broadway every Sunday. All are welcome to attend, no matter your background in journalism, writing, or reporting. Specific times for meetings by desk are listed below. If you wish to talk to an editor before you attend, feel free to check out the Staff page.

    5 P.M. 6 P.M. 6 P.M. 6:30 P.M. 6:30 P.M. 7 P.M.

    Applying for an editor position: Applications for editor positions during the fall or spring semesters are available twice each academic year and can be found here when posted. Applications for the Fall 2012 semester are closed, but check back for Spring 2013. Those who wish to apply are urged to publish pieces in the newspaper and contact current editors for shadowing.

    History of the Washington Square News:

    The Washington Square News is the official daily student newspaper of New York University and serves the NYU, Greenwich Village, and East Village communities. Founded as an independent newspaper in 1973, the WSN allows its undergraduate writers and photographers to cover campus and city news and continues to grow its strong body of award-winning journalists and photographers.

  • The WSN has a circulation of about 60,000 and can be found in over a hundred purple bins distributed throughout campus. It is published Monday through Thursday during the fall and spring semesters and online on Friday, with additional special issues published in the summer. The newspaper recently revamped its website during the Fall 2012 semester.

    Like few campus newspapers in the country, the paper is editorially and financially independent from the university and is solely responsible for selling advertisements to fund its production. The WSN, including its senior staff, is run solely by current undergraduate students and the business-division is largely student-operated as well.

    A Board of Directors comprised of alumni, NYU professors and working news media professionals serves as advisors to the paper. Board members have no control in the WSN's editorial policy or newsroom operations. Alumni of the newspaper are established and leading journalists in such news organizations as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, NBC news, ABC news, Fox News, and USA Today.