It’s getting hard to read tech articles any more that don’t mention artificial intelligence, machine learning or deep learning. It’s also obvious to me that many casual writers of technology articles don’t understand the differences and they frequently interchange the terms. So today I’ll take a shot at explaining the three terms.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is the overall field of working to create machines that carry out tasks in a way that humans think of as smart. The field has been around for a long time and twenty years ago I had an office on a floor shared by one of the early companies that was looking at AI.
AI has been in the press a lot in the last decade. For example, IBM used its Deep Blue supercomputer to beat the world’s chess champion. It really didn’t do this with anything we would classify as intelligence. It instead used the speed of a supercomputer to look forward a dozen moves and was able to rank options by looking for moves that produced the lowest number of possible ‘bad’ outcomes. But the program was not all that different than chess software that ran on PCs – it was just a lot faster and used the brute force of computing power to simulate intelligence.
Machine learning is a subset of AI that provides computers with the ability to learn without programming them for a specific task. The Deep Blue computer used a complex algorithm that told it exactly how to rank chess moves. But with machine language the goal is to write code that allows computers to interpret data and to learn from their errors to improve whatever task they are doing.
Machine learning is enabled by the use of neural network software. This is a set of algorithms that are loosely modeled after the human brain and that are designed to recognize patterns. Recognizing patterns is one of the most important ways that people interact with the world. We learn early in life what a ‘table’ is, and over time we can recognize a whole lot of different objects that also can be called tables, and we can do this quickly.
What makes machine learning so useful is that feedback can be used to inform the computer when it makes a mistake, and the pattern recognition software can incorporate that feedback into future tasks. It is this feedback capability that lets computers learn complex tasks quickly and to constantly improve performance.
One of the earliest examples of machine language I can recall is the music classification system used by Pandora. With Pandora you can create a radio station to play music that is similar to a given artist, but even more interestingly you can create a radio station that plays music similar to a given song. The Pandora algorithm, which they call the Music Genome Project, ‘listens’ to music and identifies patterns in the music in terms of 450 musical attributes like melody, harmony, rhythm, composition, etc. It can then quickly find songs that have the most similar genome.
Deep learning is the newest field of artificial intelligence and is best described as the cutting-edge subset of machine learning. Deep learning applies big data techniques to machine learning to enable software to analyze huge databases. Deep learning can help make sense out of immense amounts of data. For example, Google might use machine learning to interpret and classify all of the pictures its search engine finds on the web. This enables Google to be able to show you a huge number of pictures of tables or any other object upon request.
Pattern recognition doesn’t have to just be visual. It can include video, written words, speech, or raw data of any kind. I just read about a good example of deep learning last week. A computer was provided with huge library of videos of people talking along with the soundtracks and was asked to learn what people were saying just by how people moved their lips. The computer would make its best guess and then compare its guess to the soundtrack. With this feedback the computer quickly mastered lip reading and is now outperforming experienced human lip readers. The computer that can do this is still not ‘smart’ but it can become incredibly proficient at certain tasks and people interpret this as intelligence.
Most of the promises from AI are now coming from deep learning. It’s the basis for self-driving cars that learn to get better all of the time. It’s the basis of the computer I read about a few months ago that is developing new medicines on its own. It’s the underlying basis for the big cloud-based personal assistants like Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa. It’s going to be the underlying technology for computer programs that start tackling white collar work functions now done by people.