Update: more detail here
You may remember that computer's have now defeated the greatest human players of chess inspiring endless punditry and loose discussion about 'thinking' machines as well as inspiring awesome Arcade Fire songs. Computers are also now quite good at playing poker, have solved Checkers completely (no point playing that anymore...), provide us with frustrating 'automated phone help' bots and regularly vacuum the floors of geeks fairly adequately.
Sigh. Perhaps this is why the New York Times article, which is otherwise pretty clear and non-hyperbolic about the next spectacle, felt the need to throw this in:
Despite more than four decades of experimentation in artificial intelligence, scientists have made only modest progress until now toward building machines that can understand language and interact with humans.
Now, I'm an Artificial Intelligence researcher, so I'll try to be rational about this sentence.
The first half of the sentence refers to the common observation that four decades of research into AI has not produced walking,m talking androids trying to take over the world and consume us for power. Instead it had provided tremendous research gains and advances in technology that underly many aspects of our modern world from google to space probes, from self-driving cars to face detecting auto-focus cameras, from management of complex energy systems to medical diagnostic tools. The second half the sentence points out that on the problem everyone on the street really cares about, walking talking androids that can 'think' like us and understand what we're saying...that progress has been below society's ridiculously high expectations.
Granted. Voice recognition has got a lot better over the years but not up to say, the 4 year old child level. But you know, we don't even really understand how our own brains work, that makes simulating one in a less complex computing machine that the one between our ears, you know, tricky. (A separate approach that may outflank current AI might in fact be just building an equally complex simulation of a brain and letting it go, but that's another post.)
But I love these public spectacles, they provide a chance to explain the current level of AI and open up some of the ideas of computation in the problem that are used in more relevant applications all around us. Having a computer up on t.v. with Alex Trebek and other contestants will be fun and we probably won't even have the embarrassing situation Mr. Kasparov was in of the computer beating the human, not yet anyways.
It will be entertaining, some of it will be funny and hopefully some of it will be informative to viewers who live in an increasingly computational world. Playing jeopardy well is a much harder problem than playing chess well. The challenges it requires in terms of understanding language, meaning, searching databases, forming sentences and making strategic decisions about bids and questions are all very rich domains that have more real world application than the way chess playing programs work which is generally some kind of brute force search.
I just hope when the computer loses, the show is over and they ship the computer back to IBM labs we don't hear another round of "why such modest progress"? This ain't rocket science people, its a lot harder than that.