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There are many books, newspaper reports, and conferences providing information and making claims about artificial intelligence (AI) and its lusty infant, the field of expert systems. Reactions range from one lunatic view that all our intellectual capabilities will be exceeded by computers in a few years' time to the slightly more defensible opposite extreme view that computers are merely lumps of machinery that simply do what they are programmed to do and therefore cannot conceivably emulate human thought, creativity, or feeling. As an antidote for these extremes, I shall try to sketch a sane middle-of-the-road view.

In the long-term, AI will have enormously important consequences for science and engineering and our view of what we are. But it would be rash to speculate in detail about this. In the short-to-medium term there are extremely difficult problems. The main initial practical impact of AI will arise not so much from intelligent machines as from the use of AI techniques to build `intelligence amplifiers' for human beings. Even if machines have not advanced enough to be capable of designing other complex machines, discovering new concepts and theories, understanding speech at cocktail parties, and making all our important economic, political, and military decisions for us, AI systems may nevertheless be able to help people to learn, plan, take decisions, solve problems, absorb information, find information, design things, communicate with one another, or even just explore ideas when confronted with a new problem.

Besides helping human thought processes, AI languages, development tools, and techniques can also be used for improving and extending existing types of automation, for instance: cataloguing, checking computer programs, checking consistency of data, checking plans or designs, formatting documents, analyzing images, and many kinds of monitoring and controlling activities.

Cogsweb Project: luisgh@cogs.susx.ac.uk