What is artificial intelligence? AI definitions, applications, and the ethical questions

Artificial intelligence concept image

AI is a hot topic in technology and industry. But what exactly is artificial intelligence, how is it used, and what are the ethical implications?

SciTech Europa delves into the world of AI, defining what it means, giving examples of the real-life applications, and discussing the ethical questions it prompts.

What is artificial intelligence?

The computer scientist John McCarthy coined the term Artificial Intelligence in 1956, and defines the field of artificial intelligence as “the science and engineering of making intelligent machines.”

As well as the term for the scientific discipline, artificial intelligence refers to the intelligence of a machine, program, or system, in contrast to that of human intelligence.

Alessandro Annoni, the head of the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, spoke at the Science Meets Parliaments conference at the European Parliament, Brussels in February 2019. He said: “Artificial intelligence should not be considered a simple technology…it is a collection of technologies. It is a new paradigm that is aiming to give more power to the machine. It’s a technology that will replace humans in some cases.”

What are the everyday applications of artificial intelligence?

There are many associated and sub-fields of artificial intelligence. The applications of AI range from everyday applications to space research, humanoid robots, or driverless cars.

Machine learning is an application of artificial intelligence where machines can ‘learn’ without needing to be programmed for that specific task.

Some common examples of machine learning which you might use every day on your smartphone include:

  • Siri, or voice recognition;
  • Facial recognition;
  • Music, TV, or film streaming services such as Netflix and Apple Music, which learn the user’s preferences and predict related content; and
  • Social media feeds such as Instagram, where artificial intelligence algorithms are used to determine which content to show the user first.

Other common applications of artificial intelligence include:

  • Autonomous vehicles, such as self-driving cars;
  • Healthcare apps; and
  • Robotics

Artificial intelligence vs human intelligence

Speaking at the Zeitgeist 2015 conference in London, Stephen Hawking said: “Computers will overtake humans with AI at some within the next 100 years. When that happens, we need to make sure the computers have goals aligned with ours.”

In the episode of TEDtalks, titled ‘What happens when our computers get smarter than we are?’, the technologist and philosopher Nick Bostrum argued that: “Machine intelligence is the last invention that humanity will ever need to make.”

Bostrum also posed the question of whether intelligent machines will work to preserve our values, or have values of their own.

The concept of machines designed to perform in accordance with human values is central to the differing viewpoints on the ethics of artificial intelligence.

Catelijne Muller, Chair of the study group on artificial intelligence, argues that the main challenge of Artificial Intelligence and robotics is “Not about the challenges such as AI becoming too smart and taking over the world, but rather the kind of stupid AI that is already taking over the world.”

Her example is that “In 2014, a girl was arrested in the United States. She was taken to a police station and there she was ranked by an algorithm, which flagged a high risk of recidivism, so she was not let out on bail and was put in jail for three days. She was black. She had no [criminal] record, and never after that did she ever commit a crime again. At about the same time, a guy was arrested. He was a seasoned criminal, he was arrested for shoplifting…and at the police station he was flagged as a low risk to commit a crime. After that he commit several crimes. He was white.”

Muller’s point is that, arguably, data is not neutral. If humans are programming the machine, then the machine’s intelligence can be impacted by bias in the same way that humans can.“Let’s face it,” she added,“if you’re going to build a tool that’s going to potentially send someone to prison, then it is essential to do everything you can and use experts to give the system a better judgement.”