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What is: artificial intelligence (AI)?


When you hear the term “artificial intelligence”, what pops into your mind?

Probably something like Skynet from the Terminator movies, a super-intelligent computer which wreaks havoc on humanity and launches an almost apocalyptic war. Or maybe it’s HAL 9000 from “2001: A Space Odyssey” which slowly turns malevolent over the course of the movie. Or perhaps it’s the mass of robots that attack Will Smith’s character in “I Robot”.

But those are some pretty negative examples. You could also think of the cute and cuddly robot AI “WALL-E” of the Pixar movie with the same name. Or you might think of your beloved Siri – the one friend who never will leave you (unless you lose your phone, that is).

Whatever the case, what’s interesting about modern AI and how it is represented in popular media is that almost all of these examples (with the obvious exception of Siri) aren’t even remotely close to becoming reality. This might be a shock to you – surely, with the massively powerful supercomputers available today, and all the buzz about big data, predictive analytics, and machine learning, we’re close to AI that is smarter than humans, right?

You could point to Deep Blue beating humans at chess or Jeopardy or Go and say, “Hey, look! AI is smarter than humans! Pretty soon we’ll have robot butlers and the whole deal!!”

Image credit: BBC
via GIPHY

Well… yes and no.

The key difference between pop culture portrayals of artificial intelligence and the AI of the real world is that in pop culture, AI is represented as a singular program/robot/device capable of performing infinite tasks and solving complex/varied problems as it goes, whereas here in reality AI is much narrower in scope.

The artificial intelligence of today (and the algorithms which drive it) can complete tasks and solve problems, in many cases much faster, more efficiently, and more effectively than a human can (take writing email subject lines, for instance). But those tasks and problems must each be dealt with separately, and each require their own specific algorithm. Rather than one magical AI machine meeting every requirement of mankind, what we actually have is a multitude of machines, each working within its own narrow scope, completing their own specific task, and meeting our requirements as a team.

Confused? You aren’t alone. Let’s delve a little deeper.

What is artificial intelligence?

Strong AI

Strong AI (or general AI) is what most people think of when they hear the term “artificial intelligence”. Strong AI is a form of intelligence that possesses a human-like cognitive adaptability and ability to deal with uncertainty, along with general problem-solving abilities.

For example, the following situations would only be solvable by a human or a strong AI:

  • What direction to take a startup in
  • How to deal with a person who is emotionally overwhelmed and needs support
  • How to land a plane given unexpected and novel conditions: such as needing to do a water landing

There are three important things to understand about strong AI:

  1. Strong AI doesn’t exist yet. Strong AI is currently only present in our imaginations and in futuristic books, TV shows, movies. Some experts think we’ll arrive at strong AI by 2050, but it’s really anyone’s guess.
  2. Strong AI is a separate topic and field of research from robotics. There’s no inherent reason that AI of any kind needs to have a humanoid or robot body – this is just a concept that is popular in movies. There are plenty of robots functioning now that use weak AI or human input to control their movements.
  3. Strong AI isn’t simply a function of computing power. Current supercomputers are much, much more powerful than the human mind at certain tasks – such as crunching, and remembering, large amounts of data, doing fast calculations, or doing repetitive things over and over. However, these computers are also unable to do many things that come quite easily to humans.

As this Punchkick Interactive article states:
“As of 2014, the world’s fastest supercomputer can perform over 11 trillion operations per second. By contrast, an individual neuron can fire and reset itself about 200 times per second.

Yet a human can perform tasks within a second that these supercomputers cannot perform within the same amount of time or are unable to perform at all. This tells us that whatever the brain is doing to perform these tasks, it is going about it in a fundamentally different way than today’s most powerful machines are.”

Weak (aka narrow AI)

Weak or narrow AI performs a specific task very well. Often a task that involves lots of repetition or a large data set. This kind of AI is prevalent today in many different forms.

Siri and Google Now are examples of narrow AI that perform one function very admirably, translating human speech into commands that are then executed on your smartphone. Another example is the software in your car that prevents your brakes from locking. It uses data from your car to do this one task very well, but it cannot perform other tasks.

This AI is “narrow” as it’s programmed to do one thing. For example, Deep Blue – IBM’s famed AI system that beat chess champion Gary Kasparov at chess – took years and years of development in order to accomplish this feat. If you asked Deep Blue to play checkers, it wouldn’t be able to play until human engineers programmed that function into it, despite checkers and chess being similar in a lot of ways.

Essentially this type of AI is a computer program that performs a given function that it has been explicitly programmed to do by humans. This kind of AI cannot deal with uncertainties or new situations that have not been programmed into it already.

Narrow AI is seeing more and more commercial use and consumers love its benefits. Our own software, Phrasee, is a form of narrow AI that uses large sets of data and language processing capabilities to make your email marketing better.

Let’s dive into some other examples of weak AI that might seem more familiar:

  • “Hey Google, play my Hip Hop Motivation playlist on Spotify please.”
  • A virtual assistant reading your Kindle books out loud
  • Ordering your Uber with your voice
  • A bot sending you the most recent scores of your favorite sports team
  • “Alexa, what’s the weather like today?”
  • Chatbots that handle your requests, complaints and issues

AI generated email subject lines

Artificial intelligence functions most effectively when dealing with a relatively simple problem. Could AI write an eloquent, human-sounding novel all on its own? Nope (not yet, anyway), but what about a single line of text?

This was the problem tackled by us at Phrasee.

Phrasee developed AI algorithms which could produce bits of short-form marketing language with the goal of increasing customer engagement. Phrasee’s AI also analyzes the performance of each bit of language over time to learn which words, phrases, offers, etc. perform best for each of Phrasee’s clients. The algorithm makes adjustments accordingly as it learns.

The results?

Phrasee’s AI-generated content outperform that written by humans in 95% of cases! This increase in performance has resulted in drastic increases in email marketing revenue for Phrasee clients. There’s clearly untapped potential for AI in the marketing world.

What artificial intelligence is (and isn’t)

So, what have we learned today?

  • AI is able to do simple, repetitive tasks much better than humans can – such as crunching large amounts of data quickly.
  • AI is able to do very specific functions like interpreting human language (either typed or spoken) and carrying out commands based on those interpretations.
  • AI is not able to take over the world, or even solve simple problems that involve uncertainty and/or novel information.
  • AI is not the same thing as a robot. Robots and AI are distinct, separate things.

Congratulations – now you’re an AI expert! Go be awesome at dinner parties!


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