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According to legend, the medieval philosopher and Franciscan friar Roger Bacon created an all-knowing artificial brain, which he encased in a bronze, human-like head. Bacon, so the story goes, wanted to use the insights gleaned from this “brazen head” to make sure Britain could never be conquered.

Following Bacon, a long-standing challenge for engineers and computer scientists has been to build a silicon-based replica of the brain that could match, and then exceed, human intelligence. This ambition pushes us to imagine what we might do if we succeed in creating the next generation of computer systems that can think, dream and reason for us and with us.

Today there is little talk of brazen heads, but artificial intelligence seems to be everywhere. Magazines and newspaper articles promote it endlessly, raising expectation and fear in roughly equal measure.

Certain forms of AI are indeed becoming ubiquitous. For example, algorithms execute huge volumes of trading on our financial markets, self-driving automobiles are beginning to navigate city streets, and our smartphones are translating from one language to another. These systems are sometimes faster and more perceptive than we humans are. But so far that is only true for the specific tasks for which the systems have been designed. That is something that some AI developers are now eager to change.

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