What Exactly IS Artificial Intelligence?

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What Exactly IS Artificial Intelligence?

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by Lauren Cahn

We know we’re making use of AI when we are directed by our car navigation system to take an alternate route to avoid a traffic jam. We recognize AI is helping speed up our internet searches by filling in what it thinks we’re going to be asking after we have typed just a word or two.

But what exactly is artificial intelligence?

If television and film are any indication (and spoiler alert: they’re not), artificial intelligence would seem to refer to machines capable of independent thought and emotion. For example:

  • Hal, the computer in 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey
    Hal 9000 appeared to form murderous intent and eventually expressed fear and attempted to manipulate the astronaut, John Bowman. On the other hand, it’s arguable Hal was merely executing his programming—which instructed him to complete the crew’s mission at any cost. Was Hal actually capable of reasoning and emotion? Or had he merely learned how to “win” when challenged by humans? The question is unresolved because Hal is ultimately “unplugged,” a fate neither man nor machine could survive.
  • Andrew in 1999’s The Bicentennial Man
    Andrew is a robot serving as a butler/handyman in the Martin family household. Brilliantly programmed, Andrew demonstrates creativity, feels emotions, and exercises free will. But free will turns out to be the end of Andrew, who chooses to exercise it to become human and die.

In real life, however, artificial intelligence is not capable of free will or forming an intention. At least not yet, and nowhere in the foreseeable future. Simply put, artificial intelligence refers to elaborate algorithms applied to vast quantities of data to “teach” a machine to mimic human decision-making via “feedback” (i.e., trial, error, and repetition)—albeit faster and more accurately than any human could. For example, Exela’s enterprise data management solutions are programmed to recognize, excavate, extract, summarize, and analyze data—even unstructured data—at a speed and level of accuracy no human could approximate.

Through machine-learning, Alexa is capable of recognizing your command, “Play Freebird” and matching it with the action of playing a particular song by Lynard Skynard. But that’s AI at is simplest. At a higher level, AI is capable of teaching itself not only how to play a game, but how to win against a human. In business, AI can detect exceptions and missing fields in health insurance claims forms. It can field customer questions and comments via voice, chatbot, email, or otherwise—even when all your employees are home for the night. It can customize and refine outreach programs to maximize marketing effectiveness.

In other words, AI is changing the world dramatically. But despite Hollywood’s take on it, machines are not taking the place of humans. Well, mostly not.

“My experience in business process automation has given me firsthand exposure to the kind of job displacement that’s possible as new technologies emerge,” our CEO, Ron Cogburn, notes in in his July 26 thought leadership article for Forbes, “Prepare for the Business of Tomorrow Today.” If you’ve ever wondered whether your job might someday be capable of being performed by a machine, the thought might seem chilling. However, as Ron points out, humans still have the edge on machines. At least for now, and at least when it comes to any task that requires creativity, compassion, empathy and/or emotional or social intelligence.

You can read the full text of Ron’s article here.

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