What is AI? Not even the experts agree on the answer — Quartz
WRITTEN BY John Pavlus
You’ve probably heard the news: AI is going to take your job. Wait, no: It’s going to create a new job for you. AI is going to kill us all! Wait, no it’s not. AI is already totally smarter than us at, like, all the smart things. But that probably doesn’t matter? Neural networks. Machine learning. Deep learning. OMG. WTF. HELP.
Take a deep breath. Let’s consider for a second what we talk about when we talk about AI. Because I’m not sure many of us really know—or, at the very least, we’re not talking/arguing/worrying about the same things.
After surveying half a dozen leading experts, I was able to triangulate a reasonable answer as to what the hell these words actually mean:
Artificial intelligence (AI) is the general label for a field of study—specifically, the study of whatever might answer the question “What is required for a machine to exhibit intelligence?”
If that doesn’t sound very satisfying, the experts don’t disagree.
“At this point, AI is an aspirational term reflecting a goal,” Darrell says. What he means is that “AI” isn’t, technically speaking, a thing. It’s not in your phone. It isn’t going to eat the world or do anything to your job. It’s not even an “it” at all: It’s just a suitcase word enclosing a foggy constellation of “things”—plural—that do have real definitions and edges to them. All the other stuff you hear about—machine learning, deep learning, neural networks, what have you—are much more precise names for the various scientific, mathematical, and engineering methods that people employ within the field of AI.
But what’s so terrible about using the phrase “artificial intelligence” to enclose all that confusing detail—especially for all us non-PhDs? The words “artificial” and “intelligent” sound soothingly commonsensical when put together. But in practice, the phrase has an uncanny almost-meaning that sucks adjacent ideas and images into its orbit and spaghettifies them. When Google CEO Sundar Pichai says the company is now “AI-first,” does that mean he’s “summoning the demon,” like Elon Musk calls AI? Is he hinting at an automation-uber-alles rebooting of capitalism itself, with universal basic income as the fig leaf? Or is he just talking about incrementally improving the consumer-facing products and services we’re already familiar with—whose version of “artificial intelligence” falls somewhere between “be as smart as a puppy” and “some subset of a cockroach’s brain”?
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