Looking over the year that has passed, it is a nice question whether human stupidity or artificial intelligence has done more to shape events. Perhaps it is the convergence of the two that we really need to fear.

Artificial intelligence is a term whose meaning constantly recedes. Computers, it turns out, can do things that only the cleverest humans once could. But at the same time they fail at tasks that even the stupidest humans accomplish without conscious difficulty.

At the moment the term is mostly used to refer to machine learning: the techniques that enable computer networks to discover patterns hidden in gigantic quantities of messy, real-world data. It’s something close to what parts of biological brains can do. Artificial intelligence in this sense is what enables self-driving cars, which have to be able to recognise and act appropriately towards their environment. It is what lies behind the eerie skills of face-recognition programs and what makes it possible for personal assistants such as smart speakers in the home to pick out spoken requests and act on them. And, of course, it is what powers the giant advertising and marketing industries in their relentless attempts to map and exploit our cognitive and emotional vulnerabilities.

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