Illustration by mcminim

What even is AI anyway?

ben byford
8 min readSep 17, 2019

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is trendy and alluring; it has recovered in interest after several AI winters and is now harnessing millions of dollars in investment, yet it is also deemed as one of humanities biggest existential threats. How can we make sense this? Lets take a quick step backwards and ask:

What exactly is it?

This is by no means an exhaustive history, nor is it a technical deep dive. This article is a collection of historical and cultural references, anecdotes collected from my 4 years working on the Machine Ethics Podcast and my own thoughts on the question at hand. I write this both as an enthusiast and a teacher of data science (mostly with the lovely people at Decoded and Cambridge Spark). I write this now as it seems to me: never has there been such a time where asking the question what is AI? has been met with such a wide range of responses.

TL;DR — When someone refers to AI out of context, ask them: “What does it mean to you? What aspects of these technologies, goals, cultural artefacts, philosophy or belief structure are you conversing with currently? From this vantage point we should be able to have more specific, positive, less confused conversations about Artificial Intelligence.” Here we will walk though some of these ideas.

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ben byford

Machine Ethics Podcast. AI ethics. Web / game designer, technologist, artist, writer, cake eater. http://www.benbyford.com