Artificial General Intelligence - AGI, is for many the holy grail of computing. Humans have enjoyed consciousness and "self awareness" for some time, but to date no machine has attained a comparable level of intellectual ability despite huge advances in specific fields like gaming and math where computers dramatically surpassed human abilities long ago.
No longer relegated to science fiction, many now believe that the question is not whether or not humans can develop an artificial intelligence with human-like intellectual abilities, the only question is "when".
Ray Kurzweil, author of "The Singularity is Near" and the upcoming film "Singularity" is among the most optimistic experts on the topic of general AI. He sees general AI developing in the twenty five years, probably followed in very rapid succession by an "explosion of machine intellect" and a "Technological Singularity" which will deliver a world of almost unimaginable technological sophistication.
Last year I had the chance to speak with several brilliant insiders about the topic of "conscious computing" which many would argue will be similar in form and function to "AGI". I was surprised by the diversity of opinion, though all seemed to agree that it was only a matter of time before we are likely to see machines that think much like we do.
Marissa Mayer of Google, whose graduate work at Stanford was in AI, suggested a time frame of about ten years for conscious computing. Mayer noted that Google researchers were intrigued by some of the current algorithmic outputs from the search routines which are obviously not AI but do in fact look like the type of output you'd expect from an intelligent agent. Her optimistic timeframe is consistent with Kurzweil's notions that computing hardware and software improvements are proceeding at exponential rather than linear rates and therefore we are likely to see major gains happen over shorter and shorter timeframes.
Matt Cutts, a prominent Google Search engineer, was not as optimistic as Mayer, suggesting it could take "45" years given the incredible complexity of the algorithms needed to duplicate human style intelligence. However Cutts also noted his background is not in AI.
Perhaps not surprisingly the most vague answer I got was from Google's own AI legend, Peter Norvig, at the Convergence conference in Mountain View in 2008. He was not even comfortable that we could define "consciousness" well enough to use it as a milestone, so to him the question of "when" was in some ways irrelevant. However, I think even Norvig would agree that human quality intellect is not likely to remain only within the human sphere too much longer.
Two of the most promising projects in the field of general AI are Darpa SyNAPSE and Blue Brain. In simple terms these projects highlight two different approaches to developing a human-like artificial intelligence. For SyNAPSE the AI algorithms and software and computational power are the key focus IBM recently announced the project had essentially created equivalent computational power, and arguably thus the "intelligence" of a "cat brain" using their IBM Blue Gene Supercomputer in Silicon Valley.
Challenging IBMs assertion was Dr. Henry Markram, the architect of the Blue Brain project of Lausanne, Switzerland. The Blue Brain approach is more along the lines of reverse engineering the functions of a human brain, incorporating various human-like signals as well as the massive processing power of an IBM Blue Gene Supercomputer.
Regardless of the mechanism of development it's reasonable to assume humanity will have a conscious, self-aware computer developed with the next few decades. Although some fear the advent of an "unfriendly AI" that would threaten the very existence of its creators, I think the lesson of our own intellectual development over many centuries is that intelligence is likely to spawn greater compassion and perhaps even bring the solutions to problems that have heretofore seemed insurmountable given our feeble human intellectual constraints.
Publisher of travel, history, and news at several regional and national websites and blogs including "Technology Report". Annual Technology conference coverage includes Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and Search Engine Strategies San Jose.