A number of the tech giant's patents granted in 2015 focus on imbuing our machines with more human traits.
No matter how much we love our devices, they have more than a few shortcomings. They're cold, sterile, and still mess up way more than we expect them to. But if a slate of patents filed by IBM are any indication, injecting a bit of humanity into our computers is a very real goal, and one that could make our machines more efficient and more friendly.
In 2015, IBM was granted more patents than any other organization in the US, according to the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO). This is the 23rd year in a row that the tech giant has topped the list of patent recipients, but of particular note were a number of patents that focus on imbuing our machines with more human traits.
"I have a lot of different groups that I work with that brainstorm and come up with ideas of where technology at IBM is likely to head," said Dr. James Kozloski, a researcher and inventor at IBM who last year received a patent for a computer system that would help people with Alzheimer's fill in memory gaps.
In 2015, those predictions led to multiple patents surrounding more human-like computing technology. There's the patent for a new processor that mimics the human brain to efficiently make decisions and adapt while in the midst of processing information. There's the program that builds on the Watson system to help computers judge information to determine if something is relevant and credible, and another that improved a computer's ability to learn through human interaction. IBM researchers even patented a system for helping computers better understand and interpret human emotion when communicating with us.
Looking through the lens of Kozloski's Alzheimer's aid invention, it's easy to see how all these ideas could be combined to create a remarkable vision for artificial intelligence. If you had a program, or even a robot, designed to help you remember names or appointments at the early stages of Alzheimer's, and it was also injected with the ability to judge information, interpret your emotions, and learn new skills and language from you, you'd have something pretty close to a full-service AI caretaker.
Kozloski said this isn't exactly IBM's goal. While these technologies, which are called cognitive models, do build off of one another, they also function independently. IBM isn't focused on creating some kind of Ex Machina human brain replica, he said.
"It's an extreme vision of where human-computer interaction can go," Kozloski told me over the phone. "Artificial intelligence has many meanings. Models of cognition will be perfected when artificial intelligence is purely brain-based, but we're not there yet and it may not be necessary [to get there] to see the benefits of cognitive models."
A patent also doesn't mean the technology will definitely come to fruition, either, but Kozloski told me IBM doesn't apply for patents gratuitously (though its 23-year streak atop the PTO list shows it's not too shy about securing patent rights either).
"We set that bar pretty high that this idea is business viable," Kozloski said. "Then it becomes a decision of where the research investment is made. But once we get the patent, it's always there, it's available."
With this in mind, and at the pace technology is evolving around us, I wouldn't rule out quick-thinking, discerning, learning, and compassionate computers in our near future.