Demystifying artificial intelligence

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Computers do what we tell them to do. Period. Any talk of computers doing things they weren’t programmed to do is only a way of speaking. It’s a convenient shorthand when used properly, misleading mysticism when used improperly.

When you write a program


you could say that the computer isn’t programmed to print the number 168 in the sense that the code did not say


But of course the computer was programmed to print the number 168. It just wasn’t directly programmed to do so. Instead, it was given data and algorithms to apply to that data to produce the result. The program isn’t very useful because the degree of indirection is tiny. Artificial intelligence is more interesting because it increases the degree of indirection, but it’s still software instructing a computer to take in data and apply algorithms.

When someone says

A computer did this without being programmed!

mentally edit their statement to say

A computer did this without being directly programmed to do so!

The latter may still be impressive, but it’s not magic.

I was at a presentation once where software vendors were claiming that their software “discovered” the equation of motion for a pendulum. The software wasn’t directly programmed to do this, but it was programmed to read in data and find the best fit to the data from a set of basis functions which included sines and cosines. And it correctly found that a linear combination of sines and cosines best described the pendulum’s motion.

The pendulum example was not that impressive, though some applications of artificial intelligence truly are impressive, delivering results several layers of abstraction away from what the software was directly programmed to do. If there’s anything mysterious involved, it’s the statistical regularity of the world that allowed the software to make correct inference from the data it was given.