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Powerful and pervasive artificial intelligence is coming: now is the time to talk about its impact on privacy

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Artificial intelligence (AI) is rather like the GNU/Linux desktop: every year is the one when it will finally take off. Indeed, this has been true for AI far longer than for the GNU/Linux desktop, since it is generally held that AI as a discipline was born back in 1956, whereas the GNU project only started in 1983. But even if it’s best to be wary of claims that AI has definitely arrived this time, there are couple of straws in the wind that suggest, at the very least, it is undergoing an important step change.

Two factors are driving today’s acceleration: powerful hardware, and lots of money. On the hardware side, there is the often overlooked fact that even low-cost smartphones are more powerful than top supercomputers of just a few decades ago. Since basic smartphone features like phone calls and online activities require very little of that power, there’s plenty left to dedicate to advanced AI-type features.

A more recent hardware development is the emergence of specialized AI-optimized chips: Apple has the Neural Engine, part of its A11 Bionic chip, while Intel says it will be shipping its new Nervana Neural Network Processor family of chips designed for machine-learning applications by the end of this year. The Huawei Mate 10, launched this week, also includes a neural network processing unit (NPU), specifically designed for using neural networks, probably the hottest AI technology currently. As a review of the Huawei Mate 10 that appeared in Ars Technica pointed out, the NPU is being used in a novel way:

“Huawei isn’t necessarily focused on building an AI assistant that users can directly interact with (as they would a human assistant).

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