Artificial Intelligence: What It Is + How It’s Used
Artificial intelligence is our go-to technology when we imagine the world of the future, but it's already here in a big way. Venture funding in AI, machine learning and related startups has grown to roughly $5 billion since 2008. We'll take a quick dive into what artificial intelligence is, how it's being used and the history of how it all came to be.
Can machines think? — Alan Turing, 1950
Less than a decade after breaking the Nazi encryption machine Enigma and helping the Allied Forces win World War II, mathematician Alan Turing changed history a second time with a simple question: "Can machines think?"
Turing's paper "Computing Machinery and Intelligence" (1950), and it's subsequent Turing Test, established the fundamental goal and vision of artificial intelligence.
At it's core, AI is the branch of computer science that aims to answer Turing's question in the affirmative. It is the endeavor to replicate or simulate human intelligence in machines.
The expansive goal of artificial intelligence has given rise to many questions and debates. So much so, that no singular definition of the field is universally accepted.
The major limitation in defining AI as simply "building machines that are intelligent" is that it doesn't actually explain what artificial intelligence is? What makes a machine intelligent?
In their groundbreaking textbook Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach, authors Stuart Russell and Peter Norvig approach the question by unifying their work around the theme of intelligent agents in machines. With this in mind, AI is "the study of agents that receive percepts from the environment and perform actions." (Russel and Norvig viii)
Norvig and Russell go on to explore four different approaches that have historically defined the field of AI:
- Thinking humanly
- Thinking rationally
- Acting humanly
- Acting rationally
The first two ideas concern thought processes and reasoning, while the others deal with behavior. Norvig and Russell focus particularly on rational agents that act to achieve the best outcome, noting "all the skills needed for the Turing Test also allow an agent to act rationally." (Russel and Norvig 4).
Patrick Winston, the Ford professor of artificial intelligence and computer science at MIT, defines AI as "algorithms enabled by constraints, exposed by representations that support models targeted at loops that tie thinking, perception and action together."
While these definitions may seem abstract to the average person, they help focus the field as an area of computer science and provide a blueprint for infusing machines and programs with machine learning and other subsets of artificial intelligence.
While addressing a crowd at the Japan AI Experience in 2017, DataRobot CEO Jeremy Achin began his speech by offering the following definition of how AI is used today:
"AI is a computer system able to perform tasks that ordinarily require human intelligence... Many of these artificial intelligence systems are powered by machine learning, some of them are powered by deep learning and some of them are powered by very boring things like rules."
Artificial intelligence generally false under two broad categories:
- Narrow AI: Sometimes referred to as "Weak AI," this kind of artificial intelligence operates within a limited context and is a simulation of human intelligence. Narrow AI is often focused on performing a single task extremely well and while these machines may seem intelligent, they are operating under far more constraints and limitations than even the most basic human intelligence.
- Artificial General Intelligence (AGI): AGI, sometimes referred to as "Strong AI," is the kind of artificial intelligence we see in the movies, like the robots from Westworld or Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation. AGI is a machine with general intelligence and, much like a human being, it can apply that intelligence to solve any problem.
Narrow Artificial Intelligence
Narrow AI is all around us and is easily the most successful realization of artificial intelligence to date. With its focus on performing specific tasks, Narrow AI has experienced numerous breakthroughs in the last decade that have had "significant societal benefits and have contributed to the economic vitality of the nation," according to "Preparing for the Future of Artificial Intelligence," a 2016 report released by the Obama Administration.
A few examples of Narrow AI include:
- Google search
- Image recognition software
- Siri, Alexa and other personal assistants
- Self-driving cars
- IBM's Watson
Machine Learning & Deep Learning
Much of Narrow AI is powered by breakthroughs in machine learning and deep learning. Understanding the difference between artificial intelligence, machine learning and deep learning can be confusing. Venture capitalist Frank Chen provides a good overview of how to distinguish between them, noting:
"Artificial intelligence is a set of algorithms and intelligence to try to mimic human intelligence. Machine learning is one of them, and deep learning is one of those machine learning techniques."
Simply put, machine learning feeds a computer data and uses statistical techniques to help it "learn" how to get progressively better at a task, without having been specifically programmed for that task, eliminating the need for millions of lines of written code. Machine learning consists of both supervised learning (using labeled data sets) and unsupervised learning (using unlabeled data sets).
Deep learning is a type of machine learning that runs inputs through a biologically-inspired neural network architecture. The neural networks contain a number of hidden layers through which the data is processed, allowing the machine to go "deep" in its learning, making connections and weighting input for the best results.
Artificial General Intelligence
The creation of a machine with human-level intelligence that can be applied to any task is the Holy Grail for many AI researchers, but the quest for AGI has been fraught with difficulty.
The search for a "universal algorithm for learning and acting in any environment," (Russel and Norvig 27) isn't new, but time hasn't eased the difficulty of essentially creating a machine with a full set of cognitive abilities.
AGI has long been the muse of dystopian science fiction, in which super-intelligent robots overrun humanity, but experts agree it's not something we need to worry about anytime soon.