When one pictures the future of technology, one tends to picture something out of Star Trek: warp speed, teleporters, logic-defying feats of adventurism open to those courageous enough to seek it out, a demographic that spans dimensions and intergalactic species.

While the universe won’t need a Captain Kirk for a while, 2017 has its own brand of the unimaginable: artificial intelligence. Virtual assistants like Siri and Cortana are incredibly popular, however, not yet of JARVIS proportions: capable of carrying on a conversation and completing tasks around your house (and building super-suits.) We don’t have a Tony Stark, but we have the next best thing: Mark Zuckerberg.

The Facebook founder recently unveiled his own JARVIS interface. Literally named “Jarvis”, the artificially intelligent assistant can operate Zuckerberg’s home thermostat, turn on lights, and make toast. Jarvis also sends Zuckerberg regular text messages on what’s happening in the house, like recent visitors and when his daughter wakes up.

“In the longer term, I’d like to explore teaching Jarvis how to learn new skills itself rather than me having to teach it how to perform specific tasks,” said Zuckerberg. Jarvis works on a user-input basis, receiving commands and filtering out undesirable results by the old-fashioned “No, not that.”

This isn’t the first AI interface Zuckerberg has worked with. Facebook recently started using artificial intelligence models to combat fake news on the social networking site, with algorithms that find key words typically used in fake news articles and blocking them. AIs run mostly on learning – based on articles that people flag as “misinformation”, the system learns what qualities fake news articles have, so as to block them without user input. An almost constant onslaught of information makes it difficult to determine what is true and what’s not. With artificial intelligence programs that can determine where fake news is and eradicate it instantaneously, reliable journalism and the truth may just prevail.

Innovation in artificial intelligence is incredibly exciting, seeing as it is seemingly of purely futuristic proportions. For example, self-driving cars are nearly impossible to picture on today’s roads, despite it being proven that the more autonomous vehicles on the streets, the safer they are. It’s simply that they haven’t been invented yet – or so we believe. Luxury car manufacturer Tesla recently unveiled the latest update to their Enhanced Autopilot software, and while it’s only active in 1000 cars, it can record data in countless others as a ghost program. Enhanced Autopilot currently has self-parking capabilities, a traffic aware cruise control feature, and forward collision warning. However, the most incredible feature is the autosteering. The car can drive itself at low speeds, and while it is only in beta version, it brings the company one giant step closer to their inevitable goal: by the end of 2017, Tesla will design a car that can drive from New York to Los Angeles with zero driver input.

But what does this mean for humans? AI is potentially moving to a point where “humans need not apply”. According to a forecast by Jim McHugh, Vice President and General Manager of technology company NVIDIA, we can expect a program unmistakable for a human, and sooner than you may think.

“In 2017 there will be a chatbot that passes the Turing test, exhibiting responses so human-like that an average person wouldn’t be able to tell if it’s human or machine,” said McHugh. However, the obvious question remains: what will this chatbot be like? The premise of the Turing test is to create a machine that, when interacted with, is unmistakable for a human. Experiences shape the human personality and it shows in the way we speak: our dialogue has essential bias. If we are to somehow manage to program an AI that can carry on a conversation with fluidity and thoughtful contribution, this AI must be opinionated. If the chatbot is truly non-biased, it could be like talking with someone who agrees with everything you say – kind of fun at first, but then you begin to question if this person is actually listening. Innovative developments in the field of AI are to be celebrated, but should there be a point where we decide when to stop and head in another direction? If so, where is this point? Is it when a machine can take care of our children? The goal right now is to build something that can think for itself, but with thinking comes emotion. When we construct machines that replace human beings, we tread the thin line of the importance of being human. It is entirely possible that we may see the day where robots can feel for us, where we must decide if the gains truly outweigh the cost.

The good news is that this day is far off, although it could be sooner than you think. Amazon recently open-sourced their Alexa program, permitting outside developers to see the design and codes and improve upon the system. Technology forecasters predict that companies like Microsoft and Apple may follow suit (Apple recently stopped being hush-hush about their software and released their own paper on artificial intelligence.) New waves of interest in artificial intelligence have opened up doors to scientific collaboration, and while it may not be quite the “emergence of a new global consciousness,” this sharing of ideas and skills could definitely lead to a new age of technology.

Photo courtesy of venturebeat.com