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The meaning and origin of the expression: Artificial intelligence

Artificial intelligence

What's the meaning of the phrase 'Artificial intelligence'?

Artificial intelligence is the capacity of machines (usually computers) to exhibit intelligent behaviour.


What's the origin of the phrase 'Artificial intelligence'?

The term 'artificial intelligence' was coined by the authors of a proposal for a seminar to study the subject, to be held at Dartmouth College, USA, in 1956. This is the first line of the proposal, which was written in August, 1955 and made public in September, 1955:

We propose that a 2 month, 10 man study of artificial intelligence be carried out during the summer of 1956 at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.

The 'we' being referred to were four central figures in the project: John McCarthy, Marvin Minsky, Nathaniel Rochester and Claude Shannon, although it is widely accepted that it was McCarthy who coined the term 'artificial intelligence'.

Various strands of research which all came loosely under the heading of 'thinking machines' were explored at the conference. McCarthy's coining of 'artificial intelligence' seemed appropriate at the time but is now the source of significant confusion amongst the general public.

In the naming of cognitive processes of machines as 'artificial', as opposed to the cognitive processes of humans, McCarthy was reflecting the belief held at the time that the rather primitive computers available in the 1950s would never develop to the point where they would exhibit 'real' intelligence. The thinking then was, and this view is still held by many, that human reasoning was real; machine reasoning (in as much as it could be said to exist at all) was artificial.

Artificial intelligenceCurrent work, especially that which is developing neural networks, is showing that such computer programs work in essentially the same way as human brains; the difference between the two being one of scale and complexity rather than of kind. Those who take this view, and I am one, see no special place for the human brain and prefer the distinction to be made between 'machine intelligence' and 'human intelligence'.

In the naming of difference forms of intelligence it might be useful to look at other retronyms. A retronym is a new name for an existing object coined because the meaning of the original term used for it has become ambiguous. This new coinage is usually because of some technological development.

For example, we now have analog watches, whereas before digital watches became widespread we just had watches. Likewise, acoustic guitars, black and white films and whole milk, which used to guitars, films and milk.

It may be that over time, as it becomes clear that intelligence doesn't have to be human, we will need the term 'human intelligence' to distinguish it from 'machine intelligence'. At that point we may move to using 'machine intelligence' in preference to 'artificial intelligence'. However, it may be that the genie can't be put back in the bottle and we will be stuck with the term artificial intelligence even after it is seen to be a misnomer.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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