Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates have warned about the potential dangers of unchecked artificial intelligence.
The geniuses have had some help from Hollywood films, going all the way back to the 1968 film "2001: A Space Odyssey" and all the way up to last year's "Ex Machina."
But this may be even more frightening: AI is already part of the operations within many companies we interact with every day, from Apple's Siri to how Uber dispatches drivers to the way Facebook arranges its Newsfeed. In fact, Facebook is making research into AI a priority, with CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently stating that one of his goals this year is to "code" a personal assistant to "help run his life."
Or take it over?
As CNBC begins the process of selecting the 50 start-ups best positioned to shake up the status quo and make the 2016 CNBC Disruptor list, the old guard in tech is anxious to get ahead in AI: IBM, with its Watson offerings, and Microsoft's Cortana are among the major efforts to mimic a human understanding of language.
Underlying all of these efforts is the explosion of data and demand for algorithms to make sense of the data.
That hasn't just attracted IBM and Microsoft, but $300 million in 50 venture capital–backed deals last year for AI start-ups, following $384 million invested in 59 deals in 2014, according to CB Insights.
Palantir Technologies, which has made the CNBC Disruptor 50 list for three consecutive years, helps government agencies and Wall Street firms mine data sets for practical applications — from thwarting terrorism to preventing financial fraud.
And those big VC numbers don't include more industry-specific companies that incorporate machine learning capabilities, such as ZestFinance or Earnest, in the financial services space.
"I'm investing very aggressively right now in where artificial-/human-assisted intelligence meets health care, education, financial services around the blockchain and media," venture capitalist Jim Breyer of Breyer Capital told CNBC at Davos last week.