It's Man v. Machine on Jeopardy this week as IBM super-robot Watson
takes on former champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. At The
Atlantic, we're using Watson as an occasion to think about what smart
robots mean for the American worker. This is Part Three of a three-part
series on the exciting and sometimes scary capabilities of artificial
intelligence. Read Part One --Anything You Can Do, Robots Can Do Better -- and Part Two -- Can a Computer Do a Lawyer's Job?
Since the beginnings of the personal computer industry, computer hardware sales have often been driven by a particular software application so compelling that it has motivated customers to purchase the machine required to run it. When the Apple II was introduced in 1977, it was initially a success within a relatively small group of computer hobbyists. It wasn't until the first electronic spreadsheet, VisiCalc, was developed that the Apple II began to generate wider interest. VisiCalc was the catalyst that helped transform the Apple II from an interesting toy into a true business machine. Likewise, when the IBM PC was introduced, Lotus 1-2-3 fulfilled the "killer app" role. Later, it was graphic design and desktop publishing software that drove the Apple MacIntosh to success.
In recent years, the highest sales growth for the computer industry has not been in high-end desktop computers but instead in laptops and, lately, the newer netbook machines that provide a simple and inexpensive way to browse the web. At least in part, this probably results from the fact that the acceleration of computer hardware capability has largely outpaced what is required to run most of the software applications of interest to the average user. If you are primarily interested in word processing, spreadsheets and web browsing, it may be difficult to justify the cost of a high-end computer when a lower cost or more portable machine offers more than enough power to run the software. Likewise, it seems to be increasingly difficult for Microsoft and other software vendors to continually add new features to desktop productivity applications and operating systems that are compelling enough to justify expensive upgrades.
Yet the business models of both Intel and Microsoft depend on continuing to sell ever more powerful processors and new or updated software applications to take advantage of that power. If customers were to permanently turn away from the idea of faster processors, the business would quickly become commoditized, and Intel would lose its competitive advantage. For that reason, we can be sure that Intel, Microsoft and hundreds of other software companies are actively seeking the next killer app--something that will fully leverage the vastly increased computer power that will be available in the coming years and decades.
I think that there are good reasons to believe that this next killer app is going to turn out to be artificial intelligence (AI). AI applications are highly compute intensive and will take full advantage of all the computational power that new processors can offer. New standalone AI applications will appear, but more importantly, artificial intelligence is likely to be built directly into existing productivity applications and operating systems, as well as the enterprise software and database systems used by large businesses.
The market for AI software is likely to extend far beyond the computer industry. Increasingly sophisticated robots will demand the most advanced hardware and software available. High-end microprocessors and AI software will also surely be used to build intelligence into appliances, consumer devices and industrial equipment of all kinds. Ultimately, robots and other non-computer applications may well eclipse the personal computer market as the primary growth engine for leading-edge hardware and software.