The Quartz guide to artificial intelligence

What is it, why is it important, and should we be afraid?

What is artificial intelligence? Why is it important? Why is everyone talking about it all of a sudden? If you skim online headlines, you’ll likely read about how AI is powering Amazon and Google’s virtual assistants, or how it’s taking all the jobs (debatable), but not a good explanation of what it is (or whether the robots are going to take over). We’re here to help with this living document, a plain-English guide to AI that will be updated and refined as the field evolves and important concepts emerge.

What is artificial intelligence?

Artificial intelligence is software, or a computer program, with a mechanism to learn. It then uses that knowledge to make a decision in a new situation, as humans do. The researchers building this software try to write code that can read images, text, video, or audio, and learn something from it. Once a machine has learned, that knowledge can be put to use elsewhere. If an algorithm learns to recognize someone’s face, it can then be used to find them in Facebook photos. In modern AI, learning is often called “training” (more on that later).

Humans are naturally adept at learning complex ideas: we can see an object like an apple, and then recognize a different apple later on. Machines are very literal—a computer doesn’t have a flexible concept of “similar.” A goal of artificial intelligence is to make machines less literal. It’s easy for a machine to tell if two images of an apple, or two sentences, are exactly the same, but artificial intelligence aims to recognize a picture of that same apple from a different angle or different light; it’s capturing the visual idea of an apple. This is called “generalizing” or forming an idea that’s based on similarities in data, rather than just the images or text the AI has seen. That more general idea can then be applied to things that the AI hasn’t seen before.

“The goal is to reduce a complex human behavior to a form that can be treated computationally,” says Alex Rudnicky, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University. “This in turn allows us to build systems that can undertake complex activities that are useful to people.”

Find out 

  • How far along is AI today?
  • Why is AI important?
  • Why is AI big now, and not 30 (or 60) years ago?
  • Should we be afraid of AI?

And more at The Quartz guide to artificial intelligence

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