What is AI (And What Can It Do)?

Tech Insights for Professionals

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Monday, January 22, 2018

Hearing more about AI, but don't know where to start? Read our guide for a quick primer about what AI involves and why it matters.


Artificial intelligence is among the biggest trends transforming the tech sector today. No longer restricted to the pages of science fiction, the latest solutions promise to revolutionize how we interact with IT and go about our day-to-day lives.

But there remain many misconceptions and uncertainties about exactly what the technology is and what it can do. Therefore, we've tried to offer some clarity and answer some of the key questions surrounding it in this guide.

What is artificial intelligence?

Artificial intelligence (AI) covers a wide range of technologies, but they all essentially include some capacity for software to make decisions without direct human input, based on what they determine is the most appropriate response. The key to separating AI from other code is that this may not necessarily be something that it has been specifically programmed to do. In other words, it means machines that think for themselves.

But there's much more to AI that this simplified description. For instance, one element of AI that's getting a lot of attention in the business world right now is 'machine learning'. While this is sometimes treated as synonymous with AI, it specifically refers to a subset of the technology that is able to analyze decisions and identify where they can be improved for the future.

Therefore, the next decision the AI makes is informed by the outcome of the last one and will theoretically be better - in much the same way children adapt and gain understanding through experience.

But while having AIs that can pass for human is often seen as the ultimate goal of science fiction, and is why the Turing test to see if an AI can fool a person into believing they are interacting with a human is often cited as a key market for AI, it's far from the only thing the technology is useful for.

What can AI do today?

AI, and machine learning in particular, have a wide range of applications today. In fact, chances are you already engage with AI on a daily basis, often without realizing it. If it's a voice search such as Siri, automatic image recognition for your photos, or using a chatbot to interact with a brand, AI has already worked its way into our everyday lives.

On a fairly simple level, the recommendation engines used by the likes of Netflix and Spotify are an example of machine learning. The more a user engages with these, the better an idea the algorithm has of what they will and won't enjoy, so future suggestions should be much more in line with an individual's tastes.

But this is just the tip of a very large iceberg. For example, many banks and retailers use this technology to detect and prevent fraud. By building up an understanding of what a person's normal behavior looks like, it makes it easier to spot any anomalies that may be indicators of fraud.

This list of applications for AI and machine learning is almost endless. Whether it's driverless cars, medical research or looking for opportunities on the stock market, it's only going to become more prominent in the next few years as the neural networks underpinning AI get more sophisticated and businesses are able to deploy it for more tasks.

How will AI change business?

These developments will naturally have a huge impact on the way enterprises use their IT. While big ideas such as fully-functional virtual assistants or 'killer robots' tend to dominate people's thinking, it is in the day-to-day applications where a lot of organizations stand to transform their operations.

For example, using artificial intelligence to track a variety of market conditions and scenarios - both from within the business and external factors - can help with areas including product development, sales and marketing, by ensuring that businesses are in touch with the latest changes and are providing what their customers expect.

Some sectors will find the technology particularly useful. In healthcare, AI can be used in a number of ways to improve health on both an individual and community level. It can, for instance, track wide patterns and trends to alert providers to potential issues, or review medical trial data to identify the most effective treatments. On an individual level, it can create personalized health and wellbeing plans by looking at data gathered from wearables and other sensors, reduce errors, guide robot-assisted surgery, and much more.

Why is AI needed?

Given the concerns that some prominent people have raised about the potential future implications of AI, such as Stephen Hawking's recent warning that the technology "could be the worst event in the history of our civilization", some people may wonder whether we really need AI. After all, we've got this far without it, so is it really worth the risk of creating a Skynet-type future?

But the reality is, AI has already proven to be an invaluable asset in an age where the amount of data businesses have to deal with is spiraling far beyond what would be practical for humans to manage without help. The amount of data in the world is expected to reach 163 zettabytes by 2025, much of which will be generated automatically by a new generation of Internet of Things sensors. Therefore, trying to manage this without the assistance of AI will be an impossible task.

General AI solutions that can be adapted to numerous problems aim to make our lives easier, take the tedium out of manual and human-led processes and develop faster solutions to the biggest problems currently facing the world.

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