What is Artificial Intelligence (AI)?

The applied field of artificial intelligence (AI) has an ancient history in areas of philosophy, mathematics, and logic, but emerged directly after the Second World War when wartime research was increasingly conducted in cryptography and on the calculation of ballistic firing tables for artillery (1). 

This research was propelled through the work of mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing (1912-1954) and progress on neural networks made by Warren McCulloch and Walter Pitts. AI became a distinct field during the Dartmouth Summer Project of 1956.

What is Intelligence?

To understand AI one needs to have an idea of human intelligence since the former is created to replicate the latter. This is not an easy topic. There are over seventy definitions of intelligence which highlights the lack of expert consensus. A pair of researchers who conducted a survey of over seventy definitions of intelligence say that many of the most concise definitions of intelligence share several features (2):

  • Intelligence is a property of some agent that interacts with an environment,
  • Intelligence is generally indicative of that agent’s ability to succeed at a particular task or stated goal,
  • There is an emphasis on learning, adaptation, and flexibility within a wide range of environments and scenarios.

These three points provide a fitting definition of intelligence, which is “an agent’s ability to achieve goals in a wide range of environments”. Intelligence is understood as mental activity underpinned by various elements and processes within the brain making use of biology (such as the eyes and visual cortex) and enable the acts of reading and comprehension. Intelligence implies the ability to gather, collect, assemble, choose, and form an impression leading one to finally understand, perceive, or know.

What is Artificial Intelligence?

There are efforts to create machines and technology that can exercise human intelligence,

“Every aspect of learning or any other feature of intelligence can in principle be so precisely described that a machine can be made to simulate it. An attempt will be made to find how to make machines that use language, form abstractions and concepts, solve kinds of problems now reserved for humans, and improve themselves” (3).

But what is artificial intelligence? AI, in a general sense, is defined as non-human intelligence measured by its ability to replicate human mental skills (4). Human performance and intelligence become the benchmarks by which to measure the success of AI systems,

“Artificial intelligence began with an ambitious research agenda: To endow machines with some of the traits we value most highly in ourselves—the faculty of reason, skill in solving problems, creativity, the capacity to learn from experience” (5).

Certain AI is designed to outperform humans or at the very least equal human levels of accuracy, speed, and decision quality. Machines that have capabilities exceeding human intelligence across any task are referred to as artificial Superintelligence. This requires the AI to perform pattern recognition, adaptive learning from experience, strategizing, reasoning about others, and understanding natural language. The US Defense Science Board has described AI as “the capability of computer systems to perform tasks that normally require human intelligence (e.g., perception, conversation, decision-making)” (6).

Questions and Concerns

AI has opened a can of worms on various significant issues we will consider in additional reflections. For example, there are strong ethical and moral challenges. Since programmed into AI are human notions of ethics, the question arises as to whose ethics should be used? Western ethics has been dominated by three moral theories (virtue, deontological, and consequentialism) that do not conform with each other, so whose preferred ethical theory should get programmed into AI machines? 

There are issues of AI proving a threat to humanity. Some machines are fully automated and do not require human input and some have proven unpredictable in their responses to the environment and human interaction (Tay the bot, for example). These raise pertinent questions as to the threat AI machines can have for humanity. And there is the factor that AI is being developed for military reasons and concerns that AI might land in the hands of dangerous groups (i.e. terrorists and criminals).

AI also raises interesting philosophical questions. Are humans brains any different from the code programmed into AI machines? Should we consider an AI machine as being conscious? Can AI machines make moral choices? And so on. These questions raise theological reflection. If, for instance, AI can replicate human intelligence and brain, would this suggest human beings do not possess souls?  

These are questions and concerns over AI and technological progression that demand further exploration and analysis.


1. De Spiegeleire, Stephan., Maas, Matthijs., and Sweijs, Tim. 2017. “What is Artificial Intelligence?” In Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Defense: Strategic Implications for Small-and Medium-Sized Force Providers, edited by Matthijs Maas, Stephan De Spiegeleire, and Tim Sweijs, 25-42. Hague Centre for Strategic Studies. p. 31.

2. Legg, Shane., and Hutter, Marcus. 2007. “A collection of definitions of intelligence.” Frontiers in Artificial Intelligence and Applications 157:17-24. 

3. De Spiegeleire, Stephan., Maas, Matthijs., and Sweijs, Tim. 2017. Ibid. p. 28.

4. De Spiegeleire, Stephan., Maas, Matthijs., and Sweijs, Tim. 2017. Ibid. p. 28.

5. Hayes, Brian. 2012. “Computing Science: The Manifest Destiny of Artificial Intelligence.” American Scientist 100(4):282-287. p. 282.

6. Defense Science Board. 2016. “Report of the Defense Science Board Summer Study on Autonomy.” Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics.

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