Artificial Intelligence : The story of blind men and an elephant.

Prashant Bhatnagar
May 21, 2019 · 5 min read

The Blind men and an Elephant is an ancient Indian fable dating thousands of years ago (The first version of the story is traceable to the Buddhist text Udana 6.4, dated 500 BCE or even earlier in the Rig-Veda text between 1500 to 2000BCE) about a group of blind men who had never come across an elephant before, but who learn and understand about the elephant by each blind man feeling a different part of the elephant’s body (the elephant trunk, legs, body, tusk, etc.) and forming an opinion about the elephant based on their experience. Each one of them are factually correct but have a completely different understanding of what the elephant looked and felt like.

So, how does the ancient story of blind men relate to the modern technology trend of Artificial Intelligence? Well, the context may be different, but the moral of the story remains the same. #ArtificialIntelligence is today one of the most talked about topic in the world. The word AI brings different connotations to different people as they understand it. In all the confusion of new terminologies and use cases in a rapidly evolving technology environment, it becomes extremely challenging to understand and interpret what exactly AI is, how it works, how it can be leveraged for good use and what impact will it have on our society. In today’s world, the concept of Artificial Intelligence is understood and explained differently by different stakeholders. So, what is the best and the simplest way to really understand AI? One of the best ever definitions of AI was given nearly 70 years by Alan Turing,a great pioneer of computing . “A computer would deserve to be called intelligent if it could deceive a human into believing that it was human.” Alan Turing also came up with the famous “Turing Test” in 1950. The test was introduced by Turing in his 1950 paper, “ Computing Machinery and Intelligence”, while working at the University of Manchester. Till date, the definition given by Alan and the subsequent Alan Turing test is probably the simplest way to understand AI on a generic level.

But, a more modern way to describe and understand AI would be to state that AI is Computing which basically imitates human intelligence and thought. It refers to systems which change behaviours without being explicitly programmed, based on data collected, usage analysis, and other observations.

An easy way to understand Artificial Intelligence is to compare it with the human intelligence as both have strong parallels in the way they collect & interpret data and then act on it. The human body and mind collect data through sensory perceptions (sight, sound, smell, touch) from its environment and then the human brain stores and processes the information. The information processed then presents us with various options, opinions, decisions based on which human beings take action. These actions are then presented through our expressions, words, language, emotions, physical actions, etc.

Now, let’s extrapolate this to the technical world of AI. The computers receive data in various forms, structured as well as unstructured, like the way humans receive information through eyes, ears, skin and nose. This computer data could be in the of numeric tables, text, audio, video files, etc.

The data received is stored and processed in a large data centre through cloud computing, like the way our human mind stores and processes information. This data is then managed and processed through software programs and algorithms like the way every human understands and interprets information based on his life’s experiences, education, surrounding environment, etc. As it is with humans, the more experienced we are and the more information we have, the better we become at our jobs. For e.g. we “learn” driving cars and progressively keep on improving our driving skills as we experience newer scenarios in different environments. The same happens in AI, where we have computers “learn” through newer information and data ingestion. Hence, the term “machine learning” which we use for algorithms.

This brings us to another point on the need of having a good understanding on the concept of AI. In his latest bestseller, “ 21 Lessons for the 21st Century”, Yuval Noah Harari, starts the book with a very powerful statement, “ In a world deluged by irrelevant information, clarity is power. This statement is probably more relevant for the field of AI than for any other domain in the technology world today. The reason is very simple. Other technology domains viz. IT infrastructure, Applications, IT Services, Social Media platforms, Networking and Communications, Devices have been there for quite sometime and their standards,protocols, delivery methodologies, governance have stabilised, and innovations are currently incremental till the next breakthrough.

This is not the case for Data and AI related technology. Every day, newer use cases are being identified and implemented where AI can have an impact. Moreover, the impact and influence of AI is not confined to only technology sphere unlike in the past,but has wider societal impact in domains which technology world could not have even imagined. The impact of AI is already being felt on issues of privacy, ethics, economics, medicine, careers, geo-political narratives, etc.

In such a scenario, it is extremely critical that there is wider awareness on what comprises AI so that there is an informed debate within the technology world as well as the wider society. Lack of clarity on AI can lead us to the situation where each stakeholder shares correct and fact-based information, but the promise of AI still fails to deliver. This could result in the AI projects having their costs overblown or giving an underwhelming experience to the stakeholders. All of us in the society could miss out on the benefits of this amazing technology revolution due to the lack of coherent understanding.

We are already aware of scenarios where AI projects have suffered or got delayed or did not reach to its full potential. The root cause in most of the scenarios has been the partial understanding of the various building blocks of AI or the lack of clarity on what AI can and cannot deliver. As Yuval Noah Harari stated, “ Clarity is power”. And let the “”Blind men and an elephant” fable keep on reminding us on the importance of the understanding of the big picture of AI.

The views expressed here are by the author are personal. My May 2019 article shall be “ Why AI is happening now and not earlier”.

Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com.

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Prashant Bhatnagar

Written by

A Lifelong learner and an avid reader (https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/6172271),

The Startup

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Prashant Bhatnagar

Written by

A Lifelong learner and an avid reader (https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/6172271),

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +793K followers.

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