A Brief Introduction to Artificial Intelligence (AI)

Learn the basics about artificial intelligence (AI), why it’s important, and how it’s evolving.

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When many of us think of artificial intelligence (AI), we might think of science fiction movies and books we’ve read. It was fiction. Then, seemingly overnight, that context has suddenly changed.

With the public release of ChatGPT in November 2022, talk of AI seems to be everywhere. It has dominated news headlines and watercooler conversations and is connected to many conversations around the future of education and disruption to the current workforce.

Despite this exploding presence, there is still a lot of confusion about artificial intelligence. It’s risen to prominence so quickly that many people, educators included, have not had time to catch up with it. To help you get some foundational knowledge, we’ve gathered some of the key ideas and concepts regarding artificial intelligence and organized them here in hopes that it can save you some time and provide information to help you engage in this important conversation.

Before we dig into this topic too deeply, it’s helpful to acknowledge a few realities concerning artificial intelligence that are becoming increasingly clear. Firstly, AI is evolving at an incredibly fast rate, with new developments happening almost every day. Secondly, AI will eventually impact nearly every aspect of our lives in some way. And thirdly, educators need to become part of this conversation. In this context, educators need to know as much as possible about AI and understand how it may potentially impact education. We owe it to ourselves, our students, and our future world.

In a 2023 60 Minutes interview, Demis Hassabis, CEO of the DeepMind artificial intelligence research lab, reflects on the significant impact that AI is having and will continue to have. He says, “I’ve been working on AI for decades now, and I’ve always believed that it’s going to be the most important invention that humanity will ever make.”

What Is Artificial Intelligence?

This is probably the most logical place to start. What is this fuzzy concept called artificial intelligence?

According to the AI Education Project, artificial intelligence (often abbreviated as AI) refers to a “problem-solving or decision-making ability displayed by a man-made system that is normally associated with humans.”

Sara Brown, in Machine Learning, Explained for the MIT Sloan School of Management, similarly defines AI “as the capability of a machine to imitate intelligent human behavior.”

In short, AI is the science of programming computers to behave or respond like humans.

What Is Generative AI?

In many ways, generative AI is what has made applications like ChatGPT and Dall∙E 2 so revolutionary. Instead of simply being able to review, process, and repackage existing content like most computer programs, generative AI can actually produce new content. It can take information and ideas from its database and use it to invent, or “generate,” content that never existed before.

With ChatGPT, you can use AI to generate text content and even computer code. Tell it to write you a lesson plan about figurative language in poetry for eighth graders, and it will produce a brand new lesson that has never existed before. Similarly, you can ask Dall∙E 2 to create an image for you. By entering a text-based prompt request, this AI will produce an image that previously never existed. With both of these applications, you can ask follow-up questions in order to have the program refine what it has provided. These AI products take your input and adjust their outputs accordingly.

The “generative” aspect of AI is what makes this type of artificial intelligence a game-changer. For the first time, a computer can create new content for you simply based on the prompts you enter. People all over the world are discovering new ways to use these tools to save time and make themselves more productive. People are using it to compose emails, write blogs, brainstorm ideas, compose real estate descriptions, write lesson plans, generate computer code, and even write entire novels.

Generative AI is already presenting us with a vast number of possibilities—and this is just the beginning.

How Do Generative Chatbots, Like ChatGPT, Work?

When interacting with a generative AI chatbot, like ChatGPT, Google Bard, or Microsoft Bing Chat, it’s easy to believe that the chatbot has a mind of its own. Some people refer to this as sentient AI, or an artificial intelligence that has become self-aware. However, experts emphasize that sentient AI does not exist. In this equation, humans are the sentient beings who have feelings, emotions, perspectives, and original thoughts. The AI chatbots have learned what human behavior sounds like and looks like from us, and they have used these insights in order to communicate with us in a way that makes them “appear” sentient.

So if AI is not really conscious, how does it give us such human-like responses? To answer this, it’s helpful to listen to the words of James Manyika, Senior Vice President at Google, who was recently interviewed by 60 Minutes. During this interview, he explained that AI chatbots try “to predict the most probable next words based on everything it’s learned.”

To make this happen, AI programs study vast amounts of human language and find patterns within that usage. Those patterns are replicated to produce new combinations of words that sound human.

In the 60 Minutes interview, it was explained that “over several months, Bard read most everything on the Internet and created a model of what language looks like.” When crafting a message, it uses this vast knowledge base to predict what word will come next. It does it so well and so quickly that it feels like the chatbot is really thinking and having a conversation with you. However, it is really only doing what it’s been trained to do: synthesizing information and predicting the most probable next word.

In addition to analyzing digital content and language patterns, AI training is also dependent on the help of live humans. According to the WIRED article, How ChatGPT and Other LLMs Work—and Where They Could Go Next, David Nield explains, “. . . Trained supervisors and end users alike help to train LLMs by pointing out mistakes, ranking answers based on how good they are, and giving the AI high-quality results to aim for. Technically, it’s known as ‘reinforcement learning on human feedback’ (RLHF).”

In other words, after a computer makes a response (consider it practice), a human evaluates that response and gives the program feedback. Was it a meaningful response? Did it make sense? Were words used correctly? Was it accurate? Did the response appropriately respond to the question or key word prompt?

The program then uses that feedback to adjust its next response. In many ways, it is being coached by the human to learn how to best respond to queries. In theory, the more training that AI receives, the better it will get at providing the responses we wish to receive, and human feedback is an important part of that equation.

Is Artificial Intelligence New?

While AI seems to have exploded onto the public scene very quickly with the release of ChatGPT in November 2022, artificial intelligence has actually been in development for quite a long time. In fact, the field of AI research was founded way back in 1956 at Dartmouth College. Interest and investment in the topic has ebbed and flowed for years since that early beginning. There have been boom periods with lots of new research and energy, as well as periods referred to as “AI winters,” where investment and interest in AI largely dried up.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, AI finally began to achieve some of its goals and, by 2011, interest in AI was once again booming. This boom was further accelerated as computers became more powerful, new applications were developed, and large amounts of digital data became available.

The past decade has seen even more rapid advancement. OpenAI, the company that developed and released ChatGPT, was established in 2015. AI development has advanced to the point where the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) took notice and developed a document called the Recommendation on the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence in November 2021. And while this document was only a recommendation, it represented a well-researched and collaborative message from its 193 member states—a significant development in the evolution of AI and public policy.

Since November 2022, we’ve seen the release of several generative AI chatbots: ChatGPT, Google Bard, and Microsoft Bing with GPT integration. While the introduction of these public-facing AI platforms has made the public take notice, the reality is that citizens around the globe have been using AI for years. Consider some of these current applications of artificial intelligence that appear in our day-to-day lives:

  • Book and movie recommendations on platforms like Amazon and Netflix
  • Personalized playlists on streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music
  • GPS, mapping, and navigation apps like Google Maps and MapQuest
  • Advertising placements in a web search engine or social media platform
  • Search engines that customize results by your search history and location
  • Pharmaceutical companies who run simulations to develop new drugs
  • Customer service chatbots
  • Facial recognition on your phone
  • Self-driving cars

So while artificial intelligence isn’t new, it is certainly evolving at a faster pace than ever before, and its impact on everything from the economy to education will also likely continue to accelerate.

In fact, ChatGPT set a record for the fastest-growing user base in history. In January 2023, just 2 months after its release, ChatGPT was estimated to have reached 100 million monthly active users. For context, it took TikTok 9 months and Instagram 2½ years to reach this mark. In the article, ChatGPT Growth: 8 Powerful Findings From Its Meteoric Rise, Trevor Sinclair points out that AI used to happen behind closed doors. But now, he says, “By democratizing access to AI, it’s managed to capture the attention of millions.” This increased attention is accelerating its adoption into many facets of daily life.

Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google and Alphabet, has seen a lot in the world of AI and can look at this evolution with a very informed perspective. In the 60 Minutes interview, he says, “This is going to impact every product across every company. And so that’s why I think it’s a very, very profound technology. And so we are just in early days. . . . AI will impact everything.”

Educators, as key people in shaping the lives and skills of our future workforce, need to stay informed and be part of this conversation.