What is “Artificial Intelligence,” Anyway?

14450262598_f16dddfdc3_z_dSometimes, I wish I could go back to 1955 and prevent John McCarthy from calling it “artificial intelligence.” It’s a term that, depending upon where you work, you can’t go 5 minutes without hearing once or twice — which is great. It’s great that people are looking to the ‘future.’ It’s great that society is pushing forward with growth and expansion and all that warm and fuzzy stuff. Unfortunately, AI doesn’t really do justice to what it’s describing.

AI isn’t really “artificial” nor is it really “intelligent.” In fact, you could even argue that AI is really really dumb (wait, what?!). Yeah, dumb. Caveat: I’m speaking about the kind of AI that exists in this moment. If scientists can crack artificial general intelligence (i.e. Terminator, Hal, etc.), then, well, then that’s a whole new ballgame. But right, AI, as it exists right now can be thought of as a sort of ‘idiot savant.’ It can do the tasks that we tell it to do and do them extremely well.

Did you catch that? Let me say it again. It can do the tasks that we tell it to do and do the me extremely well. And that right there is the hitch. I can’t leave an AI at your doorstep an expect it to make you dinner. I need to give it some direction (NOTE: this is assuming that there isn’t some AGI out there that hasn’t be released). Maybe I give it a command like “make dinner” or “wash the dishes” and then it follows the rules/algorithms for navigating the space inside your hour or apartment to get to the kitchen, find the fridge (or the sink), and continue forward with its work.

When you think of it that way, that’s not really “intelligent,” is it? Nor is that really “artificial,” is it? And it’s certainly not artificial intelligence. Instead, it’s more like task automation. Granted, it’s a bit more sophisticated than that (any AI expert reading this is probably thinking I’ve lost my marbles), but that’s another thing that’s frustrating about nebulous terms like AI — they mean something very specific to the people that work in that field and to everyone else, it’s jargon. The problem with a term like AI is that the entertainment industry has given us plenty of images of what a fictitious AI might be able to do and so having a reasonable conversation with someone not versed in the particulars on the topic of AI can be daunting.

Circling back to the task automation bit — to set the minds of AI experts at ease — I know, it’s not just task automation. It’s task automation that’s informed by reams of data (even that might get me into trouble with some folks who want to be more specific). That’s what makes it seem like there’s some kind of ‘magic’ at play. So, if the AI at your front door had reams of data about how you load your dishwasher or about how cities of people load their dishwasher or if it knew all the recipes that you might select from, how often you select and on what days, etc. Data. Data is the fuel that pushes the ‘task automation’ forward.

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My point in discuss some of the finer points of AI today was not necessarily to get into the weeds of its definition, but more to illustrate that there are terms out there that have a very specific meaning to some folks, but when widely discussed by non-experts, could mean something very different. This reminds me of something I wrote a few years back about “the Economy.” It can mean something very different depending upon to whom you’re talking. For better or worse, AI seems to be one of those phrases and I’m sure it’s not the only one. I’m sure there are others out there. Can you think of any terms in your field that you’ve heard discussed in the popular press that seem to, rightly or wrongly, oversimplify its meaning?

Published by Jeremiah Stanghini

Jeremiah's primary aim is to provide readers with a new perspective. In the same vein as the "Blind Men and the Elephant," it can be difficult to know when one is looking at the big picture or if one is simply looking at a 'tusk' or a 'leg.' He writes on a variety of topics: psychology, business, science, entertainment, politics, history, etc.

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