Artificial intelligence and its limits

Reality check

After years of hype, an understanding of AI’s limitations is starting to sink in, says Tim Cross

IT WILL BE as if the world had created a second China, made not of billions of people and millions of factories, but of algorithms and humming computers. PwC, a professional-services firm, predicts that artificial intelligence (AI) will add $16trn to the global economy by 2030. The total of all activity—from banks and biotech to shops and construction—in the world’s second-largest economy was just $13trn in 2018.

PwC’s claim is no outlier. Rival prognosticators at McKinsey put the figure at $13trn. Others go for qualitative drama, rather than quantitative. Sundar Pichai, Google’s boss, has described developments in AI as “more profound than fire or electricity”. Other forecasts see similarly large changes, but less happy ones. Clever computers capable of doing the jobs of radiologists, lorry drivers or warehouse workers might cause a wave of unemployment.

Yet lately doubts have been creeping in about whether today’s AI technology is really as world-changing as it seems. It is running up against limits of one kind or another, and…