Once upon a time, I was a dedicated engineering student who occasionally had to spend time in philosophy classes. I remember a lecture in which the discussion turned to a famous scientist. This was a long time ago so the memory has faded a bit, but I’m almost certain it was Isaac Newton—arguably the greatest physicist of all time. Newton did not consider human cognition to be a purely material phenomenon, and he based this belief partially on the scientifically inexplicable bridge between thought and physical motion. An immaterial entity forms in the mind—“I’m going to move my arm”—and then something translates that mere intention into a moving arm.
A student in the class, perhaps somewhat uncomfortable with the elusive implications of this idea, disputed Newton’s interpretation. “It could all be an illusion,” he says. We think that the intention led to the action, but how do we know? If the human body is nothing more than a highly sophisticated machine, all it does is follow instructions—instincts, we call them.
But machines don’t have instincts. They have software. Is your brain programmed in C++ or Python?
What Is Artificial Intelligence?
To answer the question posed in the title of this article, we need to first address the question posed in the title of this section. In my opinion, the existence or non-existence of AI dangles from a tenuous thread—namely, the interpretation that we assign to the term, itself.
- If we define “intelligence” as “the ability to perform complex mathematical operations,” and if we define “artificial” as “not performed by a biological agent,” then yes—AI absolutely does exist and has existed for many years.
- If we change the definition of the second word to “having no connection with or dependence on biological agents,” the situation is not so straightforward. Where did the device’s intelligence originate? How did the device “learn” to understand speech, or predict the movements of a nearby vehicle, or identify fraudulent credit card transactions?
- If we define “intelligence” as involving fundamental actions that are not inherently mathematical, AI starts to look a bit suspicious. At the lowest level of computational activity, do processors really do anything beyond math and data transfer?
- And, finally, if we assert that human intelligence is more than the biochemical reactions that occur in the brain, AI becomes science fiction—surely not even the most brilliant engineering team would claim that when loading code into a DSP they also endow the processor with some sort of immaterial existence.
Why Split Hairs? Why Does This Matter?
Because there are many people in this world who do not have enough familiarity with electrical and computer engineering to understand that “artificial intelligence” is, perhaps, nothing more than marketing hype. How many non-technical folks understand that the latest Intel processor is not fundamentally different from a room-sized vacuum-tube computer? In both cases, you have storage elements and switches that turn on and off. Switches that turn on and off! Can this really be intelligence? Was Shakespeare made of tubes or MOSFETs?
Can this really be intelligence? Was Shakespeare made of tubes or MOSFETs?
Intelligence is an impressive thing; who could possibly look with indifference on the endless list of humanity’s artistic and technological triumphs? Thus, if a marketing team decides to attach the term “artificial intelligence” to a new product or service, people might subconsciously—or not so subconsciously—associate it with the awe-inspiring accomplishments of human intelligence. The trouble is, at the end of the day all you’re getting is software.
Software vs. AI
Nowadays it would be comical to create an advertisement in which a high-tech product is hailed as “having software.” You might draw a little more attention if you say that it has “advanced software” or “sophisticated software,” but advanced software is everywhere these days.
So let’s up the ante and say that it has “artificial intelligence.” Now we’re listening. You mean, it thinks? It learns? Like a person? Actually, even better—like a person that rarely forgets, and doesn’t complain, and can stay up all night, and never drinks too many glasses of wine.
The trouble is, how do you draw the line between software and AI?
Software has been doing complicated things for a long time—is there some “complexity threshold” at which you have the right to call your code artificial intelligence instead of plain old software? Twenty years from now, when software is even more sophisticated than it is today, what will we call it? Artificial brilliance? Artificial omniscience? In my opinion, we should call it what it is: software, i.e., instructions written by human beings and carried out by processors.
I’m going to go a step further and say that the term “artificial intelligence” is fundamentally flawed. It’s composed of two words, an adjective and a noun. The adjective “artificial” is describing the noun “intelligence.” Has anyone else noticed how inaccurate this is? The “intelligence” inside these devices is not artificial—it all comes from software written by human beings! The artificiality is related to the means of utilizing and manifesting this intelligence; the processor is like a pencil that gives material form to the intelligence of an architect.
There is no doubt that electronic systems can “learn” to function more effectively without direct intervention from humans; neural networks do this by processing training data. But in the end, the system is merely following the very specific instructions created by the intelligent individual who designed the network.
What does “artificial intelligence” mean to you? Is there any scientifically robust way to use this term, considering that a machine has never demonstrated any ability to possess the sort of intelligence that we associate with humans or even with higher animals? Is there a clearly defined technical distinction between software and AI, or does the distinction exist primarily within the perception of those who are designing, marketing, or buying the product?