What is an AI?

Fantastic question. Artificial Intelligence seems to be everywhere these-days; from systems that can turn on the lights in your lounge when you ask them, to applications helping diagnose illness, to systems that can book an appointment at the hairdressers for uncle Norman (let’s hope he isn’t bald). But AI isn’t a new concept, some of us have been thinking about it for over 30 years.

I still haven’t addressed the question, what is AI? The circular answer is that it is anything which utilises Artificial intelligence techniques in order to achieve a task which computers traditionally find quite difficult. Examples are seeing objects in a changing environment (where did I put that rake?), and understanding human languages – whether spoken or written. The AI techniques that allow you to try to do these things haven’t really changed, what has changed is the capacity and connectivity of the computers we run it on. Even a humble mobile phone can run an AI system. Or so I have heard.

So are AIs intelligent?

The short answer is ‘yes’. The medium answer is ‘maybe’, and the long answer is a big fat ‘no’.

Yes: if a system displays enough intelligence to be able to save someone’s life in remote Africa by giving them a good diagnosis for their illness when a doctor is two days walk away, then who cares whether it ‘understands’ what ‘early stage cancer’ actually is, or not. We don’t question how humans make decisions (ok, some people e.g. in the US and UK definitely question ‘why’, but that’s not the same). If a decision is a good one , then its a good one.

Maybe: Inside most computers its just 1s and 0s. How can 1s and 0s be intelligent? Well there is the concept of emerging behaviour. If you stick enough little bits together they can achieve what looks remarkably like intelligent behaviour. Termites can build, what in their terms, are mile high cities where they live a cooperative and harmonious life. These mounds contain farms, roads and enough sophisticated ‘air conditioning’ to allow them to survive in very hot locations. yet if you  try to look at a single termite brain for the seat of this intelligence you would have to have a pretty good microscope. Maybe lumping enough appropriate AI components together in the right way will eventually result in something that everyone agrees is intelligent. Just for Pete’s sake make sure it understands emotional context. What are you doing Dave?

No: The best AI’s on the planet are good at one thing. Taking part in quiz shows, playing Chess or Go, playing your ‘baby changing’ playlist whilst you try to extract a baby wipe with one, moderately clean, hand. To be a true AI under this test requires sentience (awareness of its own being) and an ability to do most of the stuff humans find easy (possible exception of changing a baby).

My 2p worth

I’m a pragmatic optimist, so its a ‘yes/maybe’ from me. If it barks like a dog and looks like a dog, we may as well treat it as a dog. Otherwise we are inventing a new form of solipsism. Emergent behaviour is a very real thing – the whole universe as we experience it is very likely various forms of emergent behaviours. Lastly intelligence and sentience are really two different things ( thank you to Peter Watts for opening my eyes (see Blindsight-you may have to read it a few times before you get it ) )

If we can have intelligence without self awareness – a uniquely human conceit to believe we can’t – then that makes the whole question easier. We only have to look at ourselves closely to realise how much of our daily life is handled by our subconscious, for deciding we are hungry, to driving home when tired and then not remembering how we got there, to going to sleep on a complex problem only to find we have the answer miraculously when we awake. Consciousness is vastly overrated.

For me, the quest for AI helps us to realise what it is to be human, and hopefully in knowing ourselves better, we can make better choices for the future.