Artificial Intelligence — Demystified

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is arguably the most popular technology topic of our time. AI articles, documentaries, and discussions are flooding every nature of media: popular, technical, social, and political. It captivates the imagination, fantasies, and emotions of all. In spite of so much information, there is a need for clarity around the name and basic concepts of AI. This is possibly due to media hype, differing definitions, technical jargon and images projected by science fiction about AI. This article attempts to clear up the fog surrounding AI and bring clarity for a non-technical reader.

What is Artificial Intelligence (AI)?

I like the simplest definition of AI from Wikipedia:

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is intelligence exhibited by machines.

AI consists of two words: Artificial and Intelligence. The term “Intelligence” describes the cognitive function of humans (and animals) of becoming aware of situations, learning from them, and applying the learning to make decisions and solve new problems. It includes one’s capacity for logic, understanding, self-awareness, learning, emotional knowledge, planning, creativity, and problem-solving. A very intelligent person is able to do all this quickly and for a wide variety of situations and problems. Intelligence is generally attributed to humans (and other biological animals). Artificial Intelligence is often called by other names like Machine Intelligence, Machine Cognition, or Augmented Intelligence. They all mean the same.

The term “Artificial” relates to machines — or non-human and non-biological. Colloquially, the term “artificial intelligence” is applied when a machine mimics “cognitive” functions that humans associate with other human minds, such as “learning” and “problem-solving”.

Our brain — with over 100 billion neurons, each connected to several thousand other neurons — is the most complex object in the known universe. Cognition is one of its most complex and advanced skills. Cognition is the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and senses. It encompasses decision-making and problem solving. Professor Linda Gottfredson (University of Deleware) puts it very well: “Cognition is the ability to learn and learn from experience, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, reason, plan and solve problems.

Is your personal computer intelligent?

Many household gadgets like washing machines, dishwashers, air conditioners, and even personal computers seem to be intelligent in the sense that they automatically perform complex logical tasks. Are they intelligent? Some say no. We could also say, yes. However, this intelligence is “programmed intelligence” — because the intelligence does not originate within the machine, but human developers have programmed it into the machine. Humans have created the algorithms (the logic and sequence of steps) that allow these machines to exhibit intelligence. Many robots performing complex tasks like welding and assembly in a factory are also run on algorithms programmed by humans.

Algorithms — the key to Intelligence

Execution of algorithms plays an important role in exhibiting intelligence. However, compared with human programmed intelligence in a machine, Artificial Intelligence (AI) is able to create its own algorithms through the process of “machine learning”. We humans also execute algorithms in our brain when we decide to buy Google stock vs. Microsoft’s, or going for vacation to Mallorca vs. Bahamas. Every person develops their unique algorithms for dealing with life through their subjective learning and life experiences — that is why we often make different decisions when faced with a similar choice of options. Artificial Intelligence is capable of learning and developing its own algorithms, and taking decisions based on the self-developed algorithms — just like humans. Learning and developing its own algorithms is the unique characteristic of AI.

See: How AI machines learn — just like humans.

AI automates decision-making

Functionally, AI is an automated decision-making system for a specific area of expertise — like medical, taxes, investment, translation, speech recognition or face detection. AI figures out the best answer or decision (with the highest probability of success) for any given new situation within the context of its expertise. Making better decisions is the key to success in business and in private life. Artificial Intelligence is rapidly decreasing the cost and time for making better decisions in all walks of life.

See: Artificial Intelligence Boosts Better Decision-Making.

AI and Robots

People often confuse robots with AI. Two are distinct but related. A robot is a machine that sometimes mimics the human form of some activity, but the AI itself is the algorithmic logic inside the robot. AI is the brain, and the robot is its body. Robotics faces two challenges: Physical and Logical. Physical: to make the physical body behave and move as required for the desired activity. Logical: AI part (the robot brain) must automatically figure out and decide what to do as a response to new inputs and situations.

AI does not require a physical body to express itself. AI can be viewed as an information processing black box containing the learned cognition (specialization). Input is a stream of data representing a new situation or query. The output is information for decision support and desired action. To illustrate that AI is essentially an information service needing no physical body, here are a few examples of how AI is embedded in specific services:

Structure of current AI applications

Evolution of AI

We have been exploring the topic of AI since the time of Alan Turing in the mid-last century. He developed in 1950 the famous “Turing Test” to test a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human. The concepts of AI have not changed much since then but the approach to achieving it has. Significant progress has been made in the last 5–10 years due to advances in machine learning and deep neural networks, leading to a range of services (some shown above) we all can experience today. Like any other technology, AI will evolve from addressing simple tasks, like understanding our speech, to vastly more complex problems. The evolution is described in 3 stages. We are currently at the beginning of the first stage.

1Artificial Narrow Intelligence (ANI): In this stage, AI is focused on one specific area like translation, face recognition, playing chess, diagnosing cancer, interpreting radiology images, stock investment etc. Here the AI has been trained to develop decision-making in one, and only one, area. An image recognition AI would have no clue about a game of Chess. ANI could be compared to hiring a top specialist for doing one job better than anyone else. Currently, all applications of AI are at the ANI stage. In the next 3–5 years, many new products and services will integrate ANI features offering unique customer value — a huge business opportunity to differentiate.

2Artificial General Intelligence (AGI): Next stage is AGI, where the system has a general level of intelligence. The AI system is as smart as a human across the board, performing any intellectual task that a human being can. An adult human acquires an abundance of knowledge and variety of skills and is capable of using all these in many combinations. Matching this is a lot bigger challenge than achieving expertise at one thing. No one has achieved creating an AGI yet. Average prediction by AI experts for achieving AGI is around the middle of this century. More optimistic predictions are by the year 2030.

3Artificial Super-Intelligence (ASI): AI expert Nick Bostrom defines Super-intelligence as “an intellect that is much smarter than the best human brains in practically every field, including scientific creativity, general wisdom, and social skills.” Much better can mean 10x, 1000x, or 1000000x. It is humanly impossible to imagine the impact of this on our lives and society. Expert prediction for achieving ASI is in the second half of this century. When intelligent machines themselves start designing their next generation versions, progress could be very fast and exponential. This is the stuff of science fiction at the moment.

Living with AI

In the last two decades, the Internet and smart phones have become increasingly integrated into our lives — having crept in, almost unnoticed, bringing significant benefits. We realize the enormous change they have created only when we look back and reflect. Similarly, AI will creep into our lives transforming our businesses and lifestyle in ways that we cannot yet imagine. AI is not a human substitute but an excellent teammate with complementing skills.

Complementing AI and human skills

AI is our teammate

In conclusion, AI is essentially a machine capable of very efficiently performing rational skills like learning, decision-making, and problem solving, which we have traditionally associated exclusively with humans. They can be of enormous benefit in automating complex decision-making in our lives. It is important to remember that AI is not a human substitute, but rather a tool to help us. Humans and AI will learn to collaborate as teammates — each bringing their unique skills to create a winning combination.

For more on AI: AI&U - Translating Artificial Intelligence into Business


Contact: Sharad Gandhi, Christian Ehl,

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