What is AI

Artificial intelligence (AI) is no longer constrained to Hollywood Sci-Fi movies, it’s everywhere, from Apple’s Siri to Tesla’s automated cars. Whether you realise it or not AI is impacting you on a daily basis – but do you really know what it is?

The term ‘artificial intelligence’ was first coined by Stamford computer science professor, John McCarthy, who subsequently went on to define the field for more than five decades. AI is usually described as:

‘the science of making computers do things that require human intelligence’

For example, a driverless car relies on sensors to understand the current situation. These include direction, location and speed. Based on these inputs, ‘intelligent’ computer systems control the car by deciding, like a human would, when to turn the wheel, brake or accelerate.

There are several other terms you often hear in the same sentence as AI:

Machine Learning: Generally speaking, this entails teaching a machine to perform a task, like recognising an image by feeding the system training data and then performing predictions on new datasets.
Deep Learning: A subset of machine learning that requires less hand holding. Often the approach involves neural networks – a mathematical system based on the way the human brain operates.

Am I already using AI?

Unless you live in a cave without any modern forms of communication, then it’s highly likely that you are already using and benefiting from AI. AI is baked into a number of common applications like Amazon’s Alexa, Netflix and Apple’s Siri. AI algorithms recognise your speech, provide tailored recommendations, deliver search results and even help you sort your emails.

Why have I only just heard about AI?

There are a number of factors that have all aligned to push AI beyond the cinema screens and into our everyday lives.

  • 1. Moore’s Law – Computing power is doubling every two years allowing us to process large datasets with ease.
  • 2. Thanks to more and more devices being connected, we are doubling the volume of data we capture every year. Data is the food that feeds the AI algorithms.
  • 3. AI funding has increased substantially in the last decade helping to drive innovation.
  • 4. AI as an industry is maturing – it’s been around for over 50 years, so there is a depth of experience to build from.
  • What’s next for AI?

    One major concern is that AI will replace large swathes of workers through automation. Cab drivers could find themselves out of work thanks to self-driving cars, and who needs legal researchers when a machine can read through millions of cases in a fraction of the time? Machine translation systems could render human translators unnecessary and fewer journalists will be needed to write the news if machines can do it faster and for less.

    The thought of those developments has led to discussion of alternative economic models like universal basic income, which Zuckerberg believes could be the future.

    In a few decades, an AI system with superhuman capabilities – referred to as artificial general intelligence (AGI) – could emerge. Depending on who you ask, this could either be very good or extremely bad. In an extreme example, some believe an AGI system could end up making humans extinct, whilst on the other side of the spectrum, experts think an AGI will enable us mere mortals to live for longer.

    However, for now, most people generally see AI as intelligence applied to specific tasks and domains. And with the largest companies on the planet invest in AI like never before, it’s a trend that is not about to let up.