What is Artificial Intelligence?

Why your smartphone is more like R2-D2 than the Terminator

Artificial intelligence. Getty Images

Short for artificial intelligence, AI is the science of creating intelligent computer programs and machines in an attempt to mimic human levels of intelligence.

Artificial intelligence (henceforth written as AI in this article) and computing are inexorably linked and whether or not you realize it, AI plays a huge role in our everyday lives. Realistically, it's less HAL 9000 and more iPhone X. Here’s a brief rundown of where AI originated, where it is today, and where it's headed in the future.

The History of Artificial Intelligence

Since the dawn of computing in the mid-20th century, AI has been top of mind for many computer scientists; the discipline was outlined and formalized at Dartmouth College in 1956. Immediately afterward, the industry saw an avalanche of funding and it looked as if artificial human-level intelligence was on the horizon.

Early AIs were tasked with solving mazes, communicating in simple sentences, and navigating rudimentary robots. 

Yet after 20 years, the promise of near-human intelligence hadn’t arrived. Limited computing power made many complex tasks impossible and as public support began to waver, so too did the funding. Most importantly, researchers had over-promised and under-delivered, which turned off investors. 

A second boom in the '80s saw the rise of computers that could make decisions based on a pre-programmed set of problems. And still these AI were too dumb.

They lacked practical applications, so the industry suffered another bust a few years later.

Then, a new class of artificial intelligence began to emerge: Machine learning, in which computers learn and improve from experience instead of needing to be specifically programmed for a task. In 1997, as a result of machine learning artificial intelligence, a supercomputer beat a human opponent in chess for the first time and just 14 years later, a computer named Watson defeated two human competitors in Jeopardy!

The early 2000s through today have been a high water mark for artificial intelligence. Other subsets of artificial intelligence have spawned, including data mining, neural networks and deep learning. With ever-faster computers able to perform more complex tasks, AI has seen a huge resurgence and has become an important part of everyday life, affecting everything from your drive to work to the cat gif you just shared with your mom.

AI Now

Today, artificial intelligence has found boundless applications. Research focuses on just about any application, but robots, autonomous vehicles, and even drones are among the best known. 

Simulations and simulated environments are another area that have benefited from increased computing power. Indeed, some video game simulations have become so detailed and realistic that it's led some to postulate that we must be living in a computer simulation.

Finally, language learning is one of the more ambitious and difficult AI projects being worked on today. Sure, Siri can respond to a question with a pre-programmed response, but the type of conversations you saw in Interstellar between TARS and Matthew McConaughey's character are still a ways out. 

AI in Your Daily Life

Email spam filters – If you ever wonder why you never see emails from Nigerian princes anymore, you can thank artificial intelligence.

Spam filters now use AI to recognize and learn which emails are real and which are spam. And as these AIs learn, they improve – in 2012, Google claimed that it identified 99 percent of email spam and by 2015, that figure was updated to 99.9 percent.   

Mobile check deposits – How is it that your phone can read and deposit a check – even a handwritten one? You guessed it – AI. Reading handwriting has historically been a problem for AI systems, but has now become commonplace. Now you can even see live translations of text using your smartphone camera with Google Translate.

Facebook picture taggingFacial recognition has long been a common theme in spy movies, but with the world uploading billions of pictures of faces online every day, it’s now a reality.

Every time Facebook recognizes and suggests that you tag a friend in a picture, that’s artificial intelligence hard at work.

What’s in Store for the AI of the Future?

While movies like The Terminator and The Matrix have convinced some people that maybe we shouldn’t be teaching computers how to think, researchers are more focused on creating C3POs and WALL-Es. Helpful AI like driverless cars, smartphones and homes that predict your every need, and even robots that deliver groceries are all just around the corner.

And as we push out further into the stars, AI-controlled robots will be invaluable in exploring worlds too hostile for humans. 

Some experts like Elon Musk warn that advanced AI presents significant risks and problems like robots taking over nearly everyone’s job, especially those in manufacturing, which has already seen massive job loss due to automation. Still, progress in AI marches on, even if we’re not sure where it’s headed.