What is artificial intelligence? Experts weigh in

The technology has entered the cultural mainstream. These are the basics.

July 21, 2023, 6:13 AM

Artificial intelligence, or AI, has migrated from techie niche to cultural mainstream. Today, the technology eases many basic tasks but raises profound life-or-death concerns.

By 2030, AI could contribute up to $15.7 trillion to the global economy -- an amount that exceeds the current annual output of China and India combined, accounting and research firm PwC found.

In recent months, a reckoning with AI has swept across institutions as disparate as universities, factories, media companies, governments and even amusement parks.

Here are some answers to fundamental questions about the technology:

What is AI?

AI simulates the human capacity to think and learn for the sake of performing tasks.

Computers or other machines equipped with the technology can serve dinner, package boxes, recommend personalized ads or write college-level essays, among many other uses.

Sauvik Das, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University who focuses on AI and cybersecurity, characterizes AI as a "broad umbrella term."

"AI is our attempt at creating tech that mimics human cognition," Das told ABC News. "The pace of development is pretty rapid right now."

The term was coined in the 1950s and was notably deployed by Alan Turing, who devised a test that examines whether a human interlocutor can distinguish between their conversations with a fellow individual versus those with a machine.

Over the ensuing decades, as computational capacity ballooned, AI grew increasingly sophisticated.

The technology manifests in everyday life through social media and movie recommendation algorithms, phone unlocking systems that rely on facial recognition, and personalized search engine results.

PHOTO: OpenAI CEO Sam Altman speaks before a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law hearing on artificial intelligence, May 16, 2023, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
OpenAI CEO Sam Altman speaks before a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law hearing on artificial intelligence, May 16, 2023, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Patrick Semansky/AP

"The seeds have been there for a while," Chris McComb, a professor of mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University and director of the Human+AI Design Initiative, told ABC News.

Why has interest in AI surged lately?

AI garnered mainstream attention last year after the release of a new-and-improved version of ChatGPT, a conversation bot that reached 100 million users within two months.

ChatGPT immediately responds to prompts from users on a wide range of subjects, generating an essay on Shakespeare or a set of travel tips for a given destination.

Microsoft launched a version of its Bing search engine in March that offers responses delivered by GPT-4, the latest model of ChatGPT. Rival search company Google in February announced an AI model called Bard.

The text bots, known as large language models, have prompted clashes within university classrooms, newsrooms and TV studios over uses and abuses in creating original work.

Art generators, meanwhile, instantly produce fresh artwork based on written prompts.

"We've just crossed the hump where AI seems to be doing a lot more than it used to do," Das said.

What are the potential benefits and risks of AI?

Proponents of AI say the technology could increase productivity, automate unpleasant or mundane tasks, and afford the opportunity to focus on creative and innovative endeavors.

"AI allows humans to focus on higher-value activities," Adam Wray, founder and CEO of AstrumU, an education-focused company that uses artificial intelligence, told ABC News.

The technology, Wray added, performs an array of tasks that would be "impossible for someone to efficiently handle at scale."

Detractors, however, warn AI could supercharge the spread of misinformation, hate speech and deceptive information, such as deep-fake video and audio. The technology could even pose an existential threat for humanity, some experts have warned.

In May, hundreds of business leaders and public figures sounded a sobering alarm over what they described as the threat of mass extinction posed by artificial intelligence.

Experts agree it's important to have conversations about safety and the implications of using AI.

"We have lots of experts thinking about the implications on society, safety, policy -- the right policies that we need to ensure we have safe, productive use of this technology," Brendan Englot, director of The Stevens Institute for Artificial Intelligence (SIAI), Stevens Institute of Technology's cross-division focus on AI, told ABC News.

"These same issues have come up with every new wave of technology," he added, citing cars and airplanes as two examples, "and ushered in new machines and tools that have potential to be impactful in a positive way and also carry risks."

While much uncertainty about AI remains, one forecast stands assured, Wray said.

"The only constant when it comes to AI is change," he said.

McComb said it's worth exploring AI, especially when it comes to small tasks that help make daily life "a more joyful experience" -- but it's important to be able to verify the results.

He added, "We’re deeply social beings. There's something fundamentally human we have to protect about relationships and the dignity of humanity."

ABC News' Melissa Gaffney contributed to this report.

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