What is Artificial Intelligence ?
Artificial intelligence is a fascinating topic. How our brains store information and quickly correlate that information in a manner which allows us to only use information which is relevant to the task at hand is quite a miracle. Speaking, writing, or any other form of activity which we do daily requires multiple functions which are stored in our minds as we develop from infants to mature adults. When we use our minds to solve complex problems however, the capability of our minds includes unique past experiences and the ability to assess visual information which far overshadows the capability of even the most impressive computer systems. The branch of computer science concerned with making computers behave similarly to humans is called artificial intelligence. Some examples of artificial intelligence being used today would be games playing, expert systems, natural language, neural networks and robotics. Artificial intelligence is often referred to as AI.
An example of games playing would be chess or checkers. While many computer programs have been developed that will beat even championship chess players, I have not heard of one that could assess the visual layout of the board without the position of the pieces on the board having been input to the computer by some other means. The power of our minds to do all the assessment necessary in a game of chess includes the visual interpretation of what pieces are positioned at what square on the chess board, while the computer has to have that information provided to it without the gift of eyesight.
An example of an expert system would be diagnostics. Diagnostics have been around as long as computers, we relied on them heavily while I worked as a General Purpose Computer Technician with the United States Marine Corps from 1978 to 1982. What is impressive about modern diagnostic expert systems is the ability to diagnose and repair systems that require the ability to rapidly recognize the various possible causes of a failure, and the subtle differences that enable them to know which of the various possible causes is the underlying problem. Even still, with all the impressive ability of these systems, I have not heard of one that would actually conduct the repair, and a mechanic or mechanical engineer would still be required.
An example of natural language artificial intelligence would be software that is designed to understand natural human languages. This field, in particular, is of particular interest to me because if you can differentiate between words that are the content of your message from the words which are to be invoked as commands, then it is conceivable that computers could be taught by you to do precisely what you want to do and not waste your time on obtaining the latest service pack or software update to do so. The amount of time that people use to interact with their computer and try to get meaningful, productive work done is very often a lot of time wasted on doing things that could have been given to the computer to do with spoken commands. My idea of a really useful implementation of this would be having the ability to tell your computer to check all your email and only tell me what I feel is important for me to know. This would be great if I were able to walk about my home and do chores at the same time, talk to my children, allow background music to be playing. Not so simple, right? The systems would not be able to differentiate the background noise from commands or content spoken to it. Additionally, the computer would have to be taught daily, or hourly, or to the second what requires my attention or not.
An example of neural networks would be systems that simulate intelligence by attempting to reproduce the types of physical connections that occur in animal brains. What a miracle it is that we can do simple tasks like grabbing a glass without breaking it, filling it with water without missing it or allowing it to overflow, and raising it to our lips to carefully drink its contents without spilling it all over ourselves. We are gifted by a power much greater than ourselves in our ability to do things which animals just wouldn't begin to know how to do. I don't know of any system that could both create the glass and drink the water from it.
An example of robotics would be programming computers to see, hear and react to other sensory stimuli. In the area of robotics, computers are now widely used in assembly plants, but they are capable only of very limited tasks. Robots have great difficulty identifying objects based on appearance or feel, and they still move and handle objects clumsily. I find robotics, however, to be the most compelling use of artificial intelligence because robotics will essentially delegate a task to its mechanical form when possible, understanding well enough that there really is no replacement for the gifts of sight, touch, hearing and intelligence all in the same package.
As human beings, we are so gifted by God with incredible capabilities that I always find it quite astonishing when someone who is quite gifted fails to recognize that our mere existence is not an accident, or scientific event that can be explained in a history channel program. The incredible capabilities and skills that we have and develop in our lives are gifts of God to us that we must use to our best ability, and part of our ability is to recognize where these gifts come from.
A good example of how far we have yet to go with computers would be website design. To properly explain to someone what you need to express in the form of a page that is presented on one's computer may seem like a simple task, and yet, the ability to present precisely what you want to present, in the multiple ways available to us- Content Management Systems, blogs, Dreamweaver, notepad, etc, all have basic shortcomings that prevent us from just putting something where we want it no matter what. The reason I feel this is a good example is because if we really were at an advanced stage with computers, I would be able to tell my computer, with my voice, exactly how to create the vision that I have for a website without ending up with an irrelevant disaster. Those of us who try and fail, or perhaps succeed in web design, may laugh at the thought of being able to do this. My intent here is to explain how we have so far yet to go with computers, and in an example like web design, being accomplished by speaking to your computer, there are many, many functions going on that would need to be solved in order to succeed in the task, and artificial intelligence would at least be a part of the problem of that functionality. It would not be acceptable to simply copy something that appeals to you, and yet, somehow, your words would not only have to be understood as commands, but you would have to somehow convey to the machine the art form that you witness with your eyes, that cannot, in our current development stage with computers, be witnessed by the machine. The machine has no feelings for what you may feel is pleasant or painful, informative or irrelevant, distinct or indistinct.
Interpretation of images is paramount to my reasoning that everything that goes on in our mind is quite complex, and mere commands, or even being able to draw the distinction between commands and content to be displayed are far overshadowed by the lack of capability by machines to interpret images the way humans do. It is often an art form that is subject to interpretation, and my friend, the possibilities are indeed endless when you mention the word interpretation to anyone. How do you interpret this article? How do you interpret the image displayed next to it? How on earth could you write instructions for a machine to form the same conclusion you do, and better yet, WHY would you want anyone or anything to draw the same conclusion as you would anyway? That is what friends are for.
Is Google an example of artificial intelligence?
Absolutely! I must confess that when I first heard of Google I did not think much of it, because I feel more inclined to provide content than to be looking for it. As the years have gone by, though, I have found this wonderful resource has made it easier to solve problems quickly. The ability to solve problems, or emulate human behavior, is artificial intelligence. Therefore, our use of indexed Google search results is a sort of hybrid artificial intelligence. Google has demonstrated that they are quite adept at changing "the rules" for search engine optimization. Showing up on Google is akin to hitting a moving target, because the rules could change at any time. I would be fascinated to know how many of the decision processes have become automated or not, and must assume they have to become more and more automated to keep up with all the exploits. Because it is the goal of so many to appear first page, it seems quite appropriate that those who take the time to create relevant content, would in fact be found with the phrase, and not necessarily because a lot of people think the phrase is popular. I have long been an advocate of not putting so much weight on popularity, because it is so easily skewed. Sometimes the truth is not so popular. I think they must have it within their algorithm to determine which links can be deemed to be more credible, and thus weigh the popularity of links accordingly. This is the equivalent of "consider the source", and leads me to believe that many levels of artificial intelligence will someday be employed by Google, if not already.
While artificial intelligence may be quite fascinating and have real world ramifications, both positive and negative, it must be concluded that computers, or machines, may never possess the ability or artificial intelligence to properly assimilate information and do with it the tasks that we would like them to do as well or better than we do as gifted children of God. I feel the subject of artificial intelligence really reminds me of just how lucky we are to be in possession of so many capabilities ourselves. I think the email thing is a great idea, by the way. There are several obstacles to implementing it in a manner where you could be doing other things at the same time. When I can walk in my self opening security door with my hands full, have both my sons run to me and shout "Daddy, you're home!", and sift through the snail mail at the same time as having my HAL 9000 computer determine which email is worthy of my attention, then I know we will have arrived at a significant moment in the information age. Until then, the movies we saw many years ago, like 2001, A Space Odyssey, or Star Trek, are often a reminder that the insights of incredible visionaries like Kubrick, Clarke or Gene Roddenberry may in fact have been so far ahead of their time that they may have been disappointed with how much we have not been able to do today. In the meantime, the challenge of making machines behave in a manner which is intelligent, like humans, is a considerable challenge which will continue to fascinate many of us and remind us how blessed we are to be in possession of so many gifts from God.