Science Fiction to Science Fact: The Rise of the Machines

The rapid expansion of artificial intelligence (AI) has generated a lot of excitement, but also some (perhaps justified) paranoia. Will computers replace—or even overtake—human beings? Mat Gulley, executive vice president and head of alternatives at Franklin Templeton Investments, and Ryan Biggs, research analyst at Franklin Equity Group, explore the ramifications of “the rise of the machines” in the realm of asset management. They say the full implications of the new machine age will likely take decades to fully play out, but will likely be staggering.

We have been anticipating their arrival for decades. As far back as 1958 the New York Times wrote a story about a machine developed at Cornell University called the Perceptron. The device was said to be “the embryo of an electronic computer … expected to walk, talk, see, write, reproduce itself and be conscious of its own existence.” In 1958!? That would have been an astonishing achievement in a time even before the microwave oven graced our kitchen countertops.

For the past half century, humanity has been eagerly anticipating the age of artificial intelligence (AI); imagining it in Hollywood and reporting on its progress in the media. Perhaps at times our optimism has gotten ahead of itself. Not any longer. This time, the machines are not just coming—they are already here.

AI Is Real

Exponential growth in computer processing speeds, advances in big data, open-source software and cloud computing have all converged over the last decade to move AI from the realm of science fiction to science fact.

In 2011, IBM’s “Watson” computer wowed the world, beating champion Ken Jennings on the trivia game show Jeopardy!Jennings had previously won Jeopardy! 74 times in a row against human competition. Watson beat him on its first try.

In May 2016, Google’s DeepMind computer beat world-class player Lee Se-dol in the game of Go. Go is an ancient Chinese board game long considered to be impossible for computers to play at a high level due to the presumed human intuition required. After losing to the machine, Se-dol was so impressed by one particular gambit that he described its play as “beautiful” and something he’d never seen a human do.