Blog: [No. 3 — AI] So what would be a more useful definition?
An attempt at a definition more useful than the “what computers can’t do yet” joke would be to list properties that are characteristic to AI, in this case autonomy and adaptivity.
Words can be misleading
When defining and talking about AI we have to be cautious as many of the words that we use can be quite misleading. Common examples are learning, understanding, and intelligence.
You may well say, for example, that a system is intelligent, perhaps because it delivers accurate navigation instructions or detects signs of melanoma in photographs of skin lesions. When we hear something like this, the word “intelligent” easily suggests that the system is capable of performing any task an intelligent person is able to perform: going to the grocery store and cooking dinner, washing and folding laundry, and so on.
Likewise, when we say that a computer vision system understands images because it is able to segment an image into distinct objects such as other cars, pedestrians, buildings, the road, and so on, the word “understand” easily suggest that the system also understands that even if a person is wearing a t-shirt that has a photo of a road printed on it, it is not okay to drive on that road (and over the person).
In both of the above cases, we’d be wrong.
It is important to realize that intelligence is not a single dimension like temperature. You can compare today’s temperature to yesterday’s, or the temperature in Helsinki to that in Rome, and tell which one is higher and which is lower. We even have a tendency to think that it is possible to rank people with respect to their intelligence — that’s what the intelligence quotient (IQ) is supposed to do. However, in the context of AI, it is obvious that different AI systems cannot be compared on a single axis or dimension in terms of their intelligence. Is a chess-playing algorithm more intelligent than a spam filter, or is a music recommendation system more intelligent than a self-driving car? These questions make no sense. This is because artificial intelligence is narrow (we’ll return to the meaning of narrow AI at the end of this chapter): being able to solve one problem tells us nothing about the ability to solve another, different problem.
Why you can say “a pinch of AI” but not “an AI”
The classification into AI vs non-AI is not a clear yes–no dichotomy: while some methods are clearly AI and other are clearly not AI, there are also methods that involve a pinch of AI, like a pinch of salt. Thus it would sometimes be more appropriate to talk about the “AIness” (as in happiness or awesomeness) rather than arguing whether something is AI or not.
Despite our discouragement, the use of AI as a countable noun is common. Take for instance, the headline Data from wearables helped teach an AI to spot signs of diabetes, which is otherwise a pretty good headline since it emphasizes the importance of data and makes it clear that the system can only detect signs of diabetes rather than making diagnoses and treatment decisions. And you should definitely never ever say anything like Google’s artificial intelligence built an AI that outperforms any made by humans, which is one of the all-time most misleading AI headlines we’ve ever seen (note that the headline is not by Google Research).
The use of AI as a countable noun is of course not a big deal if what is being said otherwise makes sense, but if you’d like to talk like a pro, avoid saying “an AI”, and instead say “an AI method”.