We've all seen futuristic movies with awesome Hal and Jarvis computers that are smart enough to recognize what we want them to do. They're like people. Today's computers are learning to be like that and they're already replacing us.

Take this example of a mother walking into a doctor's office and asking an assistant about her son's diarrhea:

After a few more questions, the assistant declares herself "not that concerned at this point." She schedules an appointment with a doctor in a couple of days. The mother leads her son from the room, holding his hand. But he keeps looking back at the assistant, fascinated, as if reluctant to leave.

Maybe that is because the assistant is the disembodied likeness of a woman's face on a computer screen - a no-frills avatar. Her words of sympathy are jerky, flat and mechanical. But she has the right stuff - the ability to understand speech, recognize pediatric conditions and reason according to simple rules - to make an initial diagnosis of a childhood ailment and its seriousness. And to win the trust of a little boy.

And in the glorious future, other artificially intelligent computers will schedule your meetings, effectively replace call centers or even plan a date for you and the missus. Which sadly means that they'll be replacing a lot of jobs that do better with human interaction, because a lot can get lost in translation when talking to a computer. As the article puts it, it's sort of like talking to "a waiter for whom English is a second language in a noisy restaurant." Asking for sushi might result in listings for Asian escorts.

We already deal with speech-recognizing software and computers during troubleshooting calls or even by using Google Voice Search. But AI is quickly advancing to the point where machines will be able to not only listen, but to process and learn from the things they hear. They might not necessarily get your jokes, but it's not like any humans ever did anyway. [NY Times]