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How to tell if AI or machine learning is real

Galen Gruman | June 19, 2017
False and misleading claims abound that applications and cloud services are now smart. Here’s how to identify true artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Of course, you could do that before the cloud via client/server computing, but the cloud provides at least an order of magnitude more capability than your typical datacenter, so now you can do processing and storage at the scale that whole populations can take advantage of.


Snow job 3: Machine learning means it’s smart

It’s truly impressive what a service like Siri, Cortana, or Google Now can do. And what developers can do using tools like Microsoft’s Bot Framework with Cortana. But we all quickly see how they fall apart in areas outside their programming, resorting to a simple web search for what they weren’t programmed to learn. No doubt Apple, Microsoft, and Google are using machine learning on the back end to make them appear smarter.

If someone claims an application, a service, or a machine is smart, you’re almost certainly getting snowed. Of course, people will use the word “smart” as a shortcut to mean “more capable logic,” a phrase that won’t sell anything. But if they don’t explain what “smart” means specific to their offering, you know they think you’re dumb.

The fact is that most technologies labeled “smart” are not smart, merely savvy. The difference is that smart requires intelligence and cognition, whereas savvy requires only information and the ability to take advantage of it (it’s no accident that “savvy” come from the French word for “to know”). A savvy app or robot is a good thing, but it’s still not smart. We’re simply not there yet.

Even IBM’s vaunted Watson is not smart. It is savvy, it is very fast, and it can learn. But it’s been around in various forms at IBM since the 1980s, so if Watson were truly that smart, IBM would be ruling the business world by now. Watson won’t cure diseases, make peace in the Mideast, create new tax breaks, or solve world hunger. But it can help people better handle all sorts of actions, if the price is right.

If you keep that goal in mind and are truly getting machine learning and AI precursors in your business, you’ll be satisfied. But don’t expect a sci-fi fantasy version like Data from Star Trek, HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey (inspired by IBM’s 1960s AI research!), or Philip K. Dick’s androids in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? And don’t trust vendors that sell their technology under such guises.


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