Distinguishing between Narrow AI, General AI and Super AI

A simple but necessary guide

The age of AI is upon us; in many ways, it’s engulfing us. We’re overwhelmed with information, articles and opinions on AI. Experts and non-experts alike are attempting to envision a future driven by the rise of this exponential technology. Because of the constant flow of information on AI, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to pinpoint what exactly AI is. Few of us are able to actually define artificial intelligence. Many of us make the mistake of using it synonymously with other buzzwords, like “robots”.

Thanks to centuries worth of sci-fi books, movies, and speculations about the future, many of us have formed a fantasy of a world that’s ruled (or served) by robots, aerocars, and jetpacks. Now that we’re supposedly knee-deep in the AI era, we’re bound to wonder: why don’t our lives look anything like the Jetsons? Why haven’t fallen in love with Operating Systems, like the movie Her depicted?

The truth is that, despite being surrounded by it, few of us use the term “AI” in the right context. Misusing and misunderstanding the term can cause us to make fallacious statements and assumptions about what the future holds. As we know, the world is changing at an alarming pace, so thinking critically about these changes is crucial if we want to thrive in the future. To adapt in a world driven by change, understand the implications of AI on society, and clarify where we stand today, we need to first distinguish between the various types of AI.

A Broad, Vague Definition

In basic terms, AI can be defined as:

a broad area of computer science that makes machines seem like they have human intelligence.

If a machine can solve problems, complete a task, or exhibit other cognitive functions that humans can, then we refer to it as having artificial intelligence.

Artificial Narrow Intelligence

The “broad” definition of AI is vague and can cause a misrepresentation of the type of AI that we interact with today.

Artificial Narrow Intelligence (ANI) also known as “Weak” AI is the AI that exists in our world today. Narrow AI is AI that is programmed to perform a single task — whether it’s checking the weather, being able to play chess, or analyzing raw data to write journalistic reports.

ANI systems can attend to a task in real-time, but they pull information from a specific data-set. As a result, these systems don’t perform outside of the single task that they are designed to perform.

Unlike General or “Strong” AI, which I’ll discuss further below, Narrow AI is not conscious, sentient, or driven by emotion the way that humans are. Narrow AI operates within a pre-determined, pre-defined range, even if it appears to be much more sophisticated than that.

Every sort of machine intelligence that surrounds us today is Narrow AI. Google Assistant, Google Translate, Siri and other natural language processing tools are examples of Narrow AI. Some might assume that these tools aren’t “weak” because of their ability to interact with us and process human language, but the reason that we call it “Weak” AI is because these machines are nowhere close to having human-like intelligence. They lack the self-awareness, consciousness, and genuine intelligence to match human intelligence. In other words, they can’t think for themselves.

When we converse with Siri, for example, Siri isn’t a conscious machine responding to our queries. Instead, what Siri is able to do — what it is designed to do — is process the human language, enter it into a search engine (Google), and return to us with results.

This explains why when we pose abstract questions about things like the meaning of life or how to approach a personal problem to Siri or Google Assistant, we get vague responses that often don’t make sense, or we get links to existing articles from the Internet that address these questions. On the other hand, when we ask Siri what the weather outside is, we get an accurate response. That’s because answering basic questions about the whether outside is within the range of intelligence that Siri is designed to operate in.

As humans, we have the capacity to assess our surroundings, to be sentient creatures, and to have emotionally-driven responses to situations. The AI that exists around us doesn’t have the fluidity or flexibility to think like we do. Even something as complex as a self-driving car is considered Weak AI, except that a self-driving car is made up of multiple ANI systems.

The Benefits of Narrow AI

Though we refer to existing AI and intelligent machines as “weak” AI, we shouldn’t take it for granted. Narrow AI by itself is a great feat in human innovation and intelligence.

ANI systems are able to process data and complete tasks at a significantly quicker pace than any human being can, which has enabled us to improve our overall productivity, efficiency, and quality of life. ANI systems like IBM’s Watson, for example, is able to harness the power of AI to assist doctors to make data-driven decisions, making healthcare better, quicker, and safer.

Additionally, Narrow AI has relieved us of a lot of the boring, routine, mundane tasks that we don’t want to do. From increasing efficiency in our personal lives, like Siri ordering a pizza for us online, to rifting through mounds of data and analyzing it to produce results, Narrow AI has made our lives significantly better, which is why we shouldn’t underestimate it. With the advent of advanced technologies like self-driving cars, ANI systems will also relieve us of frustrating realities like being stuck in traffic, and instead provide us with more leisure time.

ANI systems also act as the building blocks of more intelligent AI that we might encounter in the near future.

As this article in the Singularity Hub points out,

“We’re slowly building a library of narrow AI talents that are becoming more impressive. Speech recognition and processing allows computers to convert sounds to text with greater accuracy.
Google is using AI to caption millions of videos on YouTube. Likewise, computer vision is improving so that programs like Vitamin D Video can recognize objects, classify them, and understand how they move. Narrow AI isn’t just getting better at processing its environment it’s also understanding the difference between what a human says and what a human wants.”

Artificial General Intelligence

Artificial General intelligence or “Strong” AI refers to machines that exhibit human intelligence. In other words, AGI can successfully perform any intellectual task that a human being can. This is the sort of AI that we see in movies like “Her” or other sci-fi movies in which humans interact with machines and operating systems that are conscious, sentient, and driven by emotion and self-awareness.

Currently, machines are able to process data faster than we can. But as human beings, we have the ability to think abstractly, strategize, and tap into our thoughts and memories to make informed decisions or come up with creative ideas. This type of intelligence makes us superior to machines, but it’s hard to define because it’s primarily driven by our ability to be sentient creatures. Therefore, it’s something that is very difficult to replicate in machines.

AGI is expected to be able to reason, solve problems, make judgements under uncertainty, plan, learn, integrate prior knowledge in decision-making, and be innovative, imaginative and creative.

But for machines to achieve true human-like intelligence, they will need to be capable of experiencing consciousness.

Artificial Super Intelligence

Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom defines superintelligence as

“any intellect that greatly exceeds the cognitive performance of humans in virtually all domains of interest”

Artificial Super Intelligence (ASI) will surpass human intelligence in all aspects — from creativity, to general wisdom, to problem-solving. Machines will be capable of exhibiting intelligence that we haven’t seen in the brightest amongst us. This is the type of AI that many people are worried about, and the type of AI that people like Elon Musk think will lead to the extinction of the human race.

A Melding of Humans and Machines

But like any other technology, AI is a double-edged sword. According to futurist Ray Kurzweil, if the technological singularity happens, then there won’t be a machine takeover. Instead, we’ll be able to co-exist with AI in a world where machines reinforce human abilities.

Kurzweil predicts that by 2045, we will be able to multiply our intelligence a billionfold by linking wirelessly from our neocortex to a synthetic neocortex in the cloud. This will essentially cause a melding of humans and machines. Not only will we be able to connect with machines via the cloud, we’ll be able to connect to another person’s neocortex. This could enhance the overall human experience and allow us to discover various unexplored aspects of humanity.

Though we’re years away from ASI, researchers predict that the leap from AGI to ASI will be a short one. No one really knows when the first sentient computer life form is going to arrive. But as Narrow AI gets increasingly sophisticated and capable, we can begin to envision a future that is driven by both machines and humans; one in which we are much more intelligent, conscious, and self-aware.