• Martina Banyay

AI can drive your car but it cannot make you a sandwich.

Updated: Feb 1, 2019

Wherever you turn today, people are talking about Artificial Intelligence. But what is it really? The question may seem basic, but the answer is kind of complicated. There are so many different ways to describe AI.


I have found a few things useful to keep in mind when trying to understand AI.


First of all, AI is a whole field of research, just like biology and economics. And you don’t get all implications of economy just like that. So you might need some time if you want to understand what AI is and what it can do for you.


A world ruled by algorithms.

AI is something called a “General Purpose Technology”, which puts it in the same family as the printing press, the steam engine, electricity, the computer, railroads, and the internet. General Purpose Technologies have the potential to change the world as we know it. These are inventions that have a profound effect on the pre-existing economy and society at a national or global level. The world will never look the same once a General Purpose Technology has hit it. It’s difficult to fully understand what implications such game-changing technologies might have on society, which makes the discussion around AI a bit fuzzy.


Another thing that blurs the picture is the term “intelligence”. We don’t even have an agreed definition of what human intelligence is, so how could we expect to have one for artificial intelligence? Intelligence means different things to different people, and there are many different forms of intelligence: logical-mathematical intelligence, musical intelligence, spatial intelligence, intrapersonal, interpersonal intelligence and so on.


A lot of the things AI is doing today are in the area of logic and reasoning. When a computer outperforms the human champion in the board game of Go - or for that sake, just need 4 hours to go from zero to master level in all Nintendo games without even knowing the rules - that is very impressive indeed. But the skillset needed for such an exercise is quite different from what skills you need to, let’s say, seal a successful business deal, then drive back home, cook dinner for your family, tuck your kids to bed and then clean up the mess in the kitchen.

An autonomous car can drive you home safely, but it cannot make a sandwich for you.

So, if you look for machines with human intelligence, you will have to wait. Probably a long time. Today’s machines show intelligent behavior, but they are NOT intelligent.


And then finally, there is no agreed definition for what AI is, even in the scientific community. There are different related definitions, but no single, clear definition.


But, with that in mind let’s have a look at some different ways to define AI.


In a broader sense, one can say AI refers to machines that can learn, reason, and act on their own. They are capable of making independent decisions when faced with new situations, in a similar way that humans can. Sometimes they can hear, see, and sense the surroundings, and talk back to you.


Merriam-Webster defines AI as:

  • A branch of computer science dealing with the simulation of intelligent behavior in computers, and

  • The capability of a machine to imitate intelligent human behavior

It’s centered around two things: The fact that AI is a research field within computer science, and that one can use AI in trying to imitate intelligent human behavior.


Often the end goal with AI is to create autonomous and adaptable systems, that is systems that can act, learn and adjust independently. We like that because it’s really useful. Such systems can be of great help for us in our everyday lives. They can do stuff much faster, more accurate or even take care of things that would be impossible for us to do.


If you want to know more about AI and can spare 5 minutes a day, then you should watch this 7-days series I've created on what AI is, how it can be used and how to get started.

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