Part 1: Artificial Intelligence Defined


Part 1: Artificial Intelligence Defined

The most used terminology around AI

The topic of Artificial Intelligence is at the top of its hype curve (1). There are many good reasons for that; it is exciting, promising and a bit scary at the same time. In the first blog of a series we will shine some light on the most used terminology around AI.

Stefan van Duin & Naser Bakhshi - 28 March 2017

Various publications claim that AI knows what we want to buy, that it can create Netflix series, cure cancer, or that it eventually take our jobs or even destroy mankind (2). The problem–and at the same time opportunity-with the label AI is that its definition is not rigorous and very broad. A person living in the 1980s would probably consider the navigation system of our car as a form of Artificial Intelligence, whereas nowadays we don’t. We see the same happening with speech and image recognition, natural language recognition, game engines and other technologies that are becoming more and more common and embedded in everyday technology.

On the other hand, various technology solution providers are rebranding their existing solutions to AI to take advantage of the huge hype in the market, to attract press coverage. Until recently a machine learning model that predicts customer demand, that has been existing for years, would be called “data mining”, now organisations are rebranding the same model as“artificial intelligence”. This adds to the confusion about what AI is, and may very well lead to inflated expectations.

Nevertheless, recent developments in the field of AI are impressive and exciting. In order to split hype from reality and help form a view on this market, we will publish a series of articles that explain the world of AI, zooming in on the techniques that are associated with AI, the most appealing business applications, and potential issues we can expect.

In this first article we will start at the beginning, by exploring the definition of AI and associated terms. What is AI? What is Machine Learning? What is Cognitive Analytics? How do these terms relate, or differ, from one another?

1. Artificial Intelligence (AI)

In general terms, AI refers to a broad field of science encompassing not only computer science but also psychology, philosophy, linguistics and other areas. AI is concerned with getting computers to do tasks that would normally require human intelligence. Having said that, there are many points of view on AI and many definitions exist. Below we’ll list some definitions of that highlight its key characteristics.

Some general definitions

  • “Artificial intelligence is a computerised system that exhibits behaviour that is commonly thought of as requiring intelligence.” (3)
  • “Artificial Intelligence is the science of making machines do things that would require intelligence if done by man.” (4)

The founding father of AI, Alan Turing, defines this discipline as:

  • “AI is the science and engineering of making intelligent machines, especially intelligent computer programs.” (5)

In these definitions, the concept of intelligence refers to some kind of ability to plan, reason and learn, sense and build some kind of perception of knowledge and communicate in natural language.

Narrow AI vs General AI

Narrow AI vs General AI

A chess computer could beat a human in playing chess, but that same computer program couldn’t solve a complex math problem. Virtually all current AI is narrow, meaning it can only do what it is designed to do. This means that for every problem, a specific algorithm needs to be designed to solve it. Narrow AIs are mostly much better than humans at the task they were made for: for example look at face recognition, chess computers, calculus, translation. The holy grail of AI is a General AI, a single system that can learn and then solve any problem it is presented. This is exactly what humans do: we can specialise in a specific topic, from abstract maths to psychology and from sports to art. We can become experts at all of them.

An AI system combines and utilises mainly machine learning and other types of data analytics methods to achieve artificial intelligence capabilities.

2. Machine Learning

Machine learning is the process in which a computer distills regularities from training data (6). If for example you want to write an algorithm to identify spam in e-mails, you will have to train the algorithm by exposing it to many examples of e-mails that are manually tagged as being spam or not-spam. The algorithm “learns” to identify patterns, like occurrence of certain words or combinations of words, that determine the chance of an e-mail being spam.

Machine learning can be applied to many different problems and data sets. You can train an algorithm to identify pictures of cats in photo collections, potential fraud cases in insurance claims, to transform handwriting into structured text, speech into text, etcetera. All these examples would require tagged training sets. Depending on the technique used, an algorithm can improve itself by adding a feedback loop that tells it in which cases it made mistakes.

The difference with AI however is that a machine learning algorithm will never understand what it was trained to do. It may be able to identify spam, but it will not know what spam is or understand why we want it to be identified. And if there is a new sort of spam emerging, it will probably not be able to identify it unless someone (human) re-trains the algorithm.
Machine learning forms the basis of most AI systems. But while a machine-learning system may look intelligent', in our definition of AI, it in fact isn't.

3. Cognitive Analytics

Cognitive Analytics is a subfield of AI that deals with cognitive behaviour we associate with 'thinking' as opposed to perception and motor control. Thinking allows an entity to obtain information from observations, to learn and communicate.

A cognitive system is capable of extracting information from unstructured data by extracting concepts and relationships into a knowledge base. For example, from a text about Barack Obama, the relations from Figure 3 can be extracted using Natural Language Processing. 80% of all company data is unstructured and current Cognitive Analytics systems can search all of it to find the answer to your question.

Figure 3: a knowledge base extracted from text

The Cognitive System to improves its performance over time in two major ways. Firstly, through interaction with humans, and using feedback from the conversation partner or by observing two interacting humans. Secondly, from all the data in the knowledge base, new knowledge can be obtained using inference.

Another important aspect of Cognitive Analytics is the ability to use context. Context enables a Cognitive Analytics system to infer meaning from language. For example, a chatbot can take into account the conversation history to infer who is referred to by the word he:

User: Who is Obama’s wife?
AI: Michelle Obama.
User: How old is he?
AI: Barack Obama is 55 years old.

Figure 4: example conversation of a cognitive system

For this simple exercise, the system needs to be aware of names that represent people, relationships between people, gender and the common sense to infer that Obama refers to Barack Obama. All of this contextual information is required to make the right inferences to answer both questions.

Since Cognitive Systems can use contextual information, can understand unstructured data and reason about information, they can communicate with humans as well. This enables the system to respond to a question posed in English, no longer requiring the time-consuming process of converting the question into a format the computer can work with. For example, a call center representative cognitive system can quickly answer a customer’s question about camping gear by using information from product descriptions, customer reviews, sales histories, topical blogs, and travel magazines (7).

Cognitive Systems can communicate through many media, including speech, image, video, sign language, graphs or any combination of these.

4. Robotics

AI is an important enabling factor in the design and operationalisation of smart robots and other process-automation applications. In its simplest form, a robot may be a machine that is programmed to perform a simple task by following step-by-step instructions. It could consist of a rule-based engine that explicitly tells the system what to do when a certain condition occurs. A robot in a car factory is programmed like that and hardly considered intelligent.

But robotics exist in a variety of much more intelligent shapes, ranging from unmanned autonomous vehicles (UAV’s), drones, smart vacuum cleaners to intelligent chatbots and smart assistants etc. How advanced robots are is vivid if we look at robots developed by Boston Dynamics (8) and MIT’s Cheetah II (9). Another example is Amelia (10), an intelligent assistant with NLP capabilities. Key aspect of robotics is that it combines hardware (mechanical parts, sensors, screens etc.) with intelligent software and data to perform a task for which certain level of intelligence is required (e.g. orientation, motion, interaction etc.).

5. Smart Machines

The major theme in underlying the term Smart Machines is autonomy. Smart Machines are systems that –to some extend- are able to make decisions by themselves, requiring no human input. Cognitive Analytics systems as well as robots, or any kind of AI, can be called Smart Machines, as long they adhere to this rule. In the case of a robot, autonomy could consists of a capability to plan where it wants to go, what it wants to achieve and how to overcome obstacles. Rather than being human-controlled or simply following instructions, it could achieve higher-level goals like getting groceries, inspecting buildings and so forth. This is enabled by planning methods, self-preservation instincts on top of the skills that a normal robot already requires.

In the case of a Cognitive System, it will pro-actively try to learn new facts, gauge opinions and learn new common sense rules by engaging in active interaction with humans, asking questions and double-checking them with data found online. It will also actively inform decision makers about changes it has observed. For example, if customer opinions on social media suddenly swing. It could even act upon these changes, taking the example case, it could engage with the customers or share positive opinions on the social media outlets of the company.

Since Smart Machines are autonomous and intelligent, they might start communicating with each other. This leads to multi-agent systems that can make trades to improve their utility. The building-inspecting robot could ask a drone to inspect the roof for it, trading this favour for another favour, like transporting goods or simply currency.

A Cognitive System that becomes a Smart Machine can specialise in a specific area, becoming an expert in that area. Now, other Smart Machines can ask it for information in that area, and it will be able to provide more relevant answers more quickly than a general Cognitive System that is not specialised. Information brokers like this improve the overall utility of the whole network of Smart Machines.


The terms Machine Learning, Cognitive Systems, Robotics and smart machines are used often in relationship to AI, or sometimes even as synonyms. AI is a complex field of interest, with many shapes and forms. Therefore we have tried to shine some light on the most used terminology. In subsequent blogs, we will dive deeper in techniques behind AI systems, business applications, some associated technology trends and the top 5 risks and concerns.

(3) Preparing for the Future of Artificial Intelligence, NSTC, 2016
(4) 6. Raphael, B. 1976. The thinking computer. San Francisco, CA: W.H. Freeman
(6) Stephen Lucci, 2016, Artificial intelligence in the 21st century : a living introduction
(7) Deloitte, Cognitive analytics™ The three-minute guide

More information on Artificial Intelligence?

Do you want to know more about Artificial Intelligence? Please contact Naser Bakhshi via +31882883874

Also read the other blogs in this series:
Part 2: Artificial Intelligence Techniques Explained
Part 3: Applications of Artificial Intelligence
Part 4: Five technology trends that leap-frog Artificial Intelligence

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