The Quest For Artificial Intelligence
Artificial intelligence (AI) may lack an agreed-upon definition, but someone writing about its history must have some kind of definition in mind. Artificial intelligence is an activity devoted to making machines intelligent, and intelligence is that quality that enables an entity to function appropriately and with foresight in its environment. According to that definition, lots of things – humans, animals, and some machines – are intelligent. Machines, such as ‘smart cameras,’ and many animals are at the primitive end of the extended continuum along which entities with various degrees of intelligence are arrayed.
At the other end are humans, who are able to reason, achieve goals, understand and generate language, perceive and respond to sensory inputs, prove mathematical theorems, play challenging games, synthesize and summarize information, create art and music, and even write histories. Because ‘functioning appropriately and with foresight’ requires so many different capabilities, depending on the environment, we actually have several continua of intelligences with no particularly sharp discontinuities in any of them. For these reasons, I take a rather generous view of what constitutes AI. That means that my history of the subject will, at times, include some control engineering, some electrical engineering, some statistics, some linguistics, some logic, and some computer science.
If AI is about endowing machines with intelligence, what counts as a machine? To many people, a machine is a rather stolid thing. The word evokes images of gears grinding, steam hissing, and steel parts clanking. Nowadays, however, the computer has greatly expanded our notion of what a machine can be. A functioning computer system contains both hardware and software, and we frequently think of the software itself as a ‘machine.’ For example, we refer to ‘chess-playing machines’ and ‘machines that learn,’ when we actually mean the programs that are doing those things. The distinction between hardware and software has become somewhat blurred because most modern computers have some of their programs built right into their hardware circuitry.