What is artificial intelligence?


Artificial intelligence is everywhere, from Apple’s iPhone keyboard to Zillow’s home price estimates. There’s also a lot of stuff out there that marketers are calling AI, but really isn’t.

Perhaps things reached a new high point last month when AlphaGo, a virtual player of the ancient Chinese board game Go developed by Alphabet’s DeepMind AI research group, trounced the top human player in the world, China’s Ke Jie.

A moment of drama encapsulates the achievement: After Jie resigned in the second of three matches, the 19-year-old lingered in his chair, staring down at the board for several minutes, fidgeting with game pieces and scratching his head. Aja Huang, the DeepMind senior research scientist who was tasked with moving game pieces on behalf of AlphaGo, eventually got up from his chair and walked offstage, leaving Jie alone for a moment.

Still, it’s generally true that a human being like Jie has more brainpower than a computer. That’s because a person can perform a wide range of tasks better than machines, while a given computer program enhanced with AI like AlphaGo might be able to edge out a person at just a few things.

But the prospect of AI becoming smarter than people at most tasks is the single biggest thing that drives debates about effects on employment, creativity and even human existence.

Here’s an overview of what AI really is, and what the biggest companies are doing with it.