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You can ask Amazon’s virtual assistant, Alexa, for a lot of things. To play music, read the news or tell you the weather. You can even ask her to define “artificial intelligence.”
“Artificial intelligence,” Alexa says, “is the ability of a computer program or a machine to think or learn.” What Alexa fails to mention is that she herself is a form of artificial intelligence.
Artificial intelligence, or AI, is all around us. Phone navigation apps and self-driving cars use AI to plan their routes. Streaming services use AI to suggest films, while online shops use it to suggest products. AI also powers search engine results and virtual translators. Basically, AI is behind any device solving a problem that typically requires human brainpower.
Much of today’s AI is based on machine learning. This is a computer science technique that allows computers to learn from examples or experience. Take AlphaGo, for instance. This AI famously beat human champions at a complex game called Go. AlphaGo learned to play by studying 30 million Go moves that people had made. The AI then honed its skills by playing against different versions of itself.
AI has the power to do a lot of good. Thinking machines could help diagnose diseases or treat patients. Online AI moderators could screen hateful posts or flag fake news stories. Artsy AI is giving the world new paintings, songs and other creative works.
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Still, in a lot of ways, today’s AI is nowhere near as smart as people. Most AI must study vast amounts of data to learn anything. And these systems often struggle to learn abstract concepts or explain their decisions. In some cases, using AI may even cause harm. AI systems can be encoded with bias against certain groups of people. That causes problems when those AIs are used to judge job applications or decide prison sentences. Plus, training AI devours a lot of electricity. That may harm the environment.
In short: AI is revolutionizing many aspects of our lives. But like any world-changing technology, it must be used responsibly.
AI can guide us — or just entertain Advances in artificial intelligence are revolutionizing medicine, education and the arts. (12/7/2017). Readability: 7.7
Machine learning includes deep learning and neural nets Computers master new tasks similar to the way people do — by studying examples and learning from their own experience. (3/19/2021). Readability: 7.9
Training AI to be really smart poses risks to climate Smart computer programs are incredibly useful, but that artificial intelligence comes at a price. Training these systems requires an enormous amount of energy, which may impact the environment. (3/19/2021). Readability: 7.6
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Interact with artificial intelligence, or AI, directly with Google’s AI Experiments. These projects showcase the power of AI through games and other activities. Test whether an AI trained to recognize doodles can tell what you’re drawing. Or play a piano duet with an AI pianist trained to complement to different musical styles.
abstract: Something that exists as an idea or thought but not concrete or tangible (touchable) in the real world. Beauty, love and memory are abstractions; cars, trees and water are concrete and tangible. (in publishing) A short summary of a scientific paper, a poster or a scientist’s talk. Abstracts are useful to determine whether delving into the details of the whole scientific paper will yield the information you seek.
app: Short for application, or a computer program designed for a specific task.
application: A particular use or function of something.
artificial intelligence: A type of knowledge-based decision-making exhibited by machines or computers. The term also refers to the field of study in which scientists try to create machines or computer software capable of intelligent behavior.
bias: The tendency to hold a particular perspective or preference that favors some thing, some group or some choice. Scientists often “blind” subjects to the details of a test (don’t tell them what it is) so that their biases will not affect the results.
computer program: A set of instructions that a computer uses to perform some analysis or computation. The writing of these instructions is known as computer programming.
computer science: The scientific study of the principles and use of computers. Scientists who work in this field are known as computer scientists.
data: Facts and/or statistics collected together for analysis but not necessarily organized in a way that gives them meaning. For digital information (the type stored by computers), those data typically are numbers stored in a binary code, portrayed as strings of zeros and ones.
diagnose: To analyze clues or symptoms in the search for their cause. The conclusion usually results in a diagnosis — identification of the causal problem or disease.
electricity: A flow of charge, usually from the movement of negatively charged particles, called electrons.
intelligence: The ability to collect and apply knowledge and skills.
machine learning: A technique in computer science that allows computers to learn from examples or experience. Machine learning is the basis of some forms of artificial intelligence (AI). For instance, a machine-learning system might compare X-rays of lung tissue in people with cancer and then compare these to whether and how long a patient survived after being given a particular treatment. In future, that AI system might be able to look at a new patient’s lung scans and predict how well they will respond to a treatment.
online: (n.) On the internet. (adj.) A term for what can be found or accessed on the internet.
search engine: (in computing) A computer program that allows a computer to search for information on the Internet. Common examples include Google, Yahoo and Bing.
self-driving car: Also known as a driverless car or autonomous vehicle. These cars pilot themselves based on instructions that have been programmed into their computer guidance system.
technology: The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry — or the devices, processes and systems that result from those efforts.
virtual: Being almost like something. An object or concept that is virtually real would be almost true or real — but not quite. The term often is used to refer to something that has been modeled — by or accomplished by — a computer using numbers, not by using real-world parts. So a virtual motor would be one that could be seen on a computer screen and tested by computer programming (but it wouldn’t be a three-dimensional device made from metal). (in computing) Things that are performed in or through digital processing and/or the internet. For instance, a virtual conference may be where people attended by watching it over the internet.
Maria Temming is the assistant editor at Science News for Students. She has bachelor’s degrees in physics and English, and a master’s in science writing.
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Readability Score: 7.5
HS-ESS3-5, HS-ETS1-3, HS-PS4-5, MS-ESS3-3, MS-PS4-3
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