What is Artificial Intelligence?

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What is Artificial Intelligence?

Artificial intelligence (AI), the ability of a digital computer or computer-controlled robot to perform tasks commonly associated with intelligent beings. The term is frequently applied to the project of developing systems endowed with the intellectual processes characteristic of humans, such as the ability to reason, discover meaning, generalize, or learn from past experience. Since the development of the digital computer in the 1940s, it has been demonstrated that computers can be programmed to carry out very complex tasks—as, for example, discovering proofs for mathematical theorems or playing chess—with great proficiency.

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Still, despite continuing advances in computer processing speed and memory capacity, there are as yet no programs that can match human flexibility over wider domains or in tasks requiring much everyday knowledge. On the other hand, some programs have attained the performance levels of human experts and professionals in performing certain specific tasks, so that artificial intelligence in this limited sense is found in applications as diverse as medical diagnosis, computer search engines, and voice or handwriting recognition.

What Is Intelligence?

All but the simplest human behaviour is ascribed to intelligence, while even the most complicated insect behaviour is never taken as an indication of intelligence. What is the difference? Consider the behaviour of the digger wasp, Sphex ichneumoneus. When the female wasp returns to her burrow with food, she first deposits it on the threshold, checks for intruders inside her burrow, and only then, if the coast is clear, carries her food inside. The real nature of the wasp’s instinctual behaviour is revealed if the food is moved a few inches away from the entrance to her burrow while she is inside: on emerging, she will repeat the whole procedure as often as the food is displaced. Intelligence—conspicuously absent in the case of Sphex—must include the ability to adapt to new circumstances.

Psychologists generally do not characterize human intelligence by just one trait but by the combination of many diverse abilities. Research in AI has focused chiefly on the following components of intelligence: learning, reasoning, problem-solving, perception, and using language.

There are a number of different forms of learning as applied to artificial intelligence. The simplest is learning by trial and error. For example, a simple computer program for solving mate-in-one chess problems might try moves at random until mate is found. The program might then store the solution with the position so that the next time the computer encountered the same position it would recall the solution. This simple memorizing of individual items and procedures — known as rote learning — is relatively easy to implement on a computer. More challenging is the problem of implementing what is called generalization. Generalization involves applying past experience to analogous new situations. For example, a program that learns the past tense of regular English verbs by rote will not be able to produce the past tense of a word such as jump unless it previously had been presented with jumped, whereas a program that is able to generalize can learn the “add ed” rule and so form the past tense of jump based on experience with similar verbs.

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To reason is to draw inferences appropriate to the situation. Inferences are classified as either deductive or inductive. An example of the former is, “Fred must be in either the museum or the café. He is not in the café; therefore he is in the museum,” and of the latter, “Previous accidents of this sort were caused by instrument failure; therefore this accident was caused by instrument failure.” The most significant difference between these forms of reasoning is that in the deductive case the truth of the premises guarantees the truth of the conclusion, whereas in the inductive case the truth of the premise lends support to the conclusion without giving absolute assurance. Inductive reasoning is common in science, where data are collected and tentative models are developed to describe and predict future behaviour — until the appearance of anomalous data forces the model to be revised. Deductive reasoning is common in mathematics and logic, where elaborate structures of irrefutable theorems are built up from a small set of basic axioms and rules.

There has been considerable success in programming computers to draw inferences, especially deductive inferences. However, true reasoning involves more than just drawing inferences; it involves drawing inferences relevant to the solution of the particular task or situation. This is one of the hardest problems confronting AI.

Problem-solving, particularly in artificial intelligence, may be characterized as a systematic search through a range of possible actions in order to reach some predefined goal or solution. Problem-solving methods divide into special purpose and general purpose. A special-purpose method is tailor-made for a particular problem and often exploits very specific features of the situation in which the problem is embedded. In contrast, a general-purpose method is applicable to a wide variety of problems. One general-purpose technique used in AI is means-end analysis — a step-by-step, or incremental, reduction of the difference between the current state and the final goal. The program selects actions from a list of means — in the case of a simple robot this might consist of PICKUP, PUTDOWN, MOVE FORWARD, MOVE BACK, MOVE LEFT, and MOVE RIGHT — until the goal is reached.

Many diverse problems have been solved by artificial intelligence programs. Some examples are finding the winning move (or sequence of moves) in a board game, devising mathematical proofs, and manipulating “virtual objects” in a computer-generated world.


In perception, the environment is scanned by means of various sensory organs, real or artificial, and the scene is decomposed into separate objects in various spatial relationships. The analysis is complicated by the fact that an object may appear different depending on the angle from which it is viewed, the direction and intensity of illumination in the scene, and how much the object contrasts with the surrounding field.

At present, artificial perception is sufficiently well advanced to enable optical sensors to identify individuals, autonomous vehicles to drive at moderate speeds on the open road, and robots to roam through buildings collecting empty soda cans. One of the earliest systems to integrate perception and action was FREDDY, a stationary robot with a moving television eye and a pincer hand, constructed at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, during the period 1966–73 under the direction of Donald Michie. FREDDY was able to recognize a variety of objects and could be instructed to assemble simple artefacts, such as a toy car, from a random heap of components.

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