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In less than a decade, computers have become extremely good at diagnosing diseases, translating languages, and transcribing speech. They can outplay humans at complicated strategy games, create photorealistic images, and suggest useful replies to your emails.

Yet despite these impressive achievements, artificial intelligence has glaring weaknesses.

Machine-learning systems can be duped or confounded by situations they haven’t seen before. A self-driving car gets flummoxed by a scenario that a human driver could handle easily. An AI system laboriously trained to carry out one task (identifying cats, say) has to be taught all over again to do something else (identifying dogs). In the process, it’s liable to lose some of the expertise it had in the original task. Computer scientists call this problem “catastrophic forgetting.”

These shortcomings have something in common: they exist because AI systems don’t understand causation. They see that some events are associated with other events, but they don’t ascertain which things directly make other things happen. It’s as if you knew that the presence of clouds made rain likelier, but you didn’t know clouds caused rain.

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Category: Science