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The concept of inanimate objects endowed with intelligence has been around since ancient times. The Greek god Hephaestus was depicted in myths as forging robot-like servants out of gold. Engineers in ancient Egypt built statues of gods animated by priests.
Throughout the centuries, thinkers from Aristotle to the 13th century Spanish theologian Ramon Llull to René Descartes and Thomas Bayes used the tools and logic of their times to describe human thought processes as symbols, laying the foundation for AI concepts such as general knowledge representation.
The late 19th and first half of the 20th centuries brought forth the foundational work that would give rise to the modern computer. In 1836, Cambridge University mathematician Charles Babbage and Augusta Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace, invented the first design for a programmable machine.
Princeton mathematician John Von Neumann conceived the architecture for the stored-program computer -- the idea that a computer's program and the data it processes can be kept in the computer's memory. And Warren McCulloch and Walter Pitts laid the foundation for neural networks.
With the advent of modern computers, scientists could test their ideas about machine intelligence. One method for determining whether a computer has intelligence was devised by the British mathematician and World War II code-breaker Alan Turing. The Turing Test focused on a computer's ability to fool interrogators into believing its responses to their questions were made by a human being.
The modern field of artificial intelligence is widely cited as starting this year during a summer conference at Dartmouth College. Sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the conference was attended by 10 luminaries in the field, including AI pioneers Marvin Minsky, Oliver Selfridge and John McCarthy, who is credited with coining the term artificial intelligence. Also in attendance were Allen Newell, a computer scientist, and Herbert A. Simon, an economist, political scientist and cognitive psychologist, who presented their groundbreaking Logic Theorist, a computer program capable of proving certain mathematical theorems and referred to as the first AI program.
In the wake of the Dartmouth College conference, leaders in the fledgling field of AI predicted that a man-made intelligence equivalent to the human brain was around the corner, attracting major government and industry support. Indeed, nearly 20 years of well-funded basic research generated significant advances in AI:
For example, in the late 1950s, Newell and Simon published the General Problem Solver (GPS) algorithm, which fell short of solving complex problems but laid the foundations for developing more sophisticated cognitive architectures; McCarthy developed Lisp, a language for AI programming that is still used today. In the mid-1960s MIT Professor Joseph Weizenbaum developed ELIZA, an early natural language processing program that laid the foundation for today's chatbots.
But the achievement of artificial general intelligence proved elusive, not imminent, hampered by limitations in computer processing and memory and by the complexity of the problem. Government and corporations backed away from their support of AI research, leading to a fallow period lasting from 1974 to 1980 and known as the first "AI Winter."
In the 1980s, research on deep learning techniques and industry's adoption of Edward Feigenbaum's expert systems sparked a new wave of AI enthusiasm, only to be followed by another collapse of government funding and industry support. The second AI winter lasted until the mid-1990s.
Increases in computational power and an explosion of data sparked an AI renaissance in the late 1990s that has continued to present times. The latest focus on AI has given rise to breakthroughs in natural language processing, computer vision, robotics, machine learning, deep learning and more. Moreover, AI is becoming ever more tangible, powering cars, diagnosing disease and cementing its role in popular culture.
In 1997, IBM's Deep Blue defeated Russian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov, becoming the first computer program to beat a world chess champion. Fourteen years later, IBM's Watson captivated the public when it defeated two former champions on the game show Jeopardy!. More recently, the historic defeat of 18-time World Go champion Lee Sedol by Google DeepMind's AlphaGo stunned the Go community and marked a major milestone in the development of intelligent machines.