Artificial Intelligence (AI) is once again a promising technology. The last time this happened was in the 1980s, and before that, the late 1950s through the early 1960s. In between, commentators often described AI as having fallen into “Winter,” a period of decline, pessimism, and low funding. Understanding the field’s more than six decades of history is difficult because most of our narratives about it have been written by AI insiders and developers themselves, most often from a narrowly American perspective. In addition, the trials and errors of the early years are scarcely discussed in light of the current hype around AI, heightening the risk that past mistakes will be repeated. How can we make better sense of AI’s history and what might it tell us about the present moment?
This essay adopts a periodization used in the Japanese AI community to look at the history of AI in the USA. One developer, Yutaka Matsuo, claims we are now in the third AI boom. I borrow this periodization because I think describing AI in terms of “booms” captures well the cyclical nature of AI history: the booms have always been followed by busts. In what follows I sketch the evolution of AI across the first two booms, covering a period of four decades from 1956 to 1996. In order to elucidate some of the dynamics of AI’s boom-and-bust cycle, I focus on the promise of AI. Specifically, we’ll be looking at the impact of statements about what AI one day would, or could, become.
Promises are what linguists call “illocutionary acts,” a kind of performance that commits the promise maker to a “future course of action.” A statement like, “We can make machines that play chess, I promise” has the potential to become true, if the promise is kept. But promises can also be broken. Nietzsche argued over a century ago that earning the right to make promises was a uniquely human problem. Building on that insight, the anthropologist Mike Fortun has explored the important role promises play in the construction of technoscience. AI is no exception. In Booms 1 and 2, the promises about AI were many, rarely kept, and still absolutely essential to its funding, development, and social impacts.
Over the past year, no topic has fascinated me more than the history of artificial intelligence and robotics, especially the drama surrounding the two AI winters.