Weak AI and Narrow AI explained

What do the terms 'weak AI' and 'narrow AI' mean?

What are weak AI and narrow AI, and how do they relate to AGI (artificial general intelligence)?

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Artificial intelligence comes in many forms. You might hear the terms weak AI and narrow AI, or conversely strong AI and broad AI. In the same breath, you might hear of AGI (Artificial General Intelligence), which are AI systems sufficiently strong and broad to the point that they mimic the human brain, and are indiscernible from biological consciousness. In the field of machine learning, these terms are used to describe the breadth of applications of their respective algorithms. Are they only fit for specific tasks, or do their capabilities rival – even surpass – human intelligence?

What is Weak AI and Narrow AI?

Weak AI and Narrow AI are synonymously used terms which refer to AI of less-than-human intelligence. This is often described in terms of “scope” – that is, how many problems can it solve?

AI technologies today are developed to solve individual problems. They have a narrow range of parameters, no real agency to divert course based on what the user doesn’t know they don’t know. They can answer a question, but it might not be the best question to ask. By contrast, a general AI is capable of decision-making. It can, by definition, replicate human intelligence – and even human emotion. We may choose not to imbue robots with the deep learning programming we would perceive as the emotion of human beings, because we are conscious enough to know that this is a tactical disadvantage in many ways, despite being a natural part of our evolution.

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What is an example of Weak or Narrow AI?

Predictive text and language translation are examples of narrow AI. These both involve the subset of AI known as natural language processing (NLP) which uses a text-based AI model (meaning a neural network trained on a dataset of text) called a large language model (LLM).

These narrow AI algorithms make recommendations based on a user input. They have a narrow set of constraints, such as only being able to generate a specific set of alphanumeric characters, not being able to create files, being limited to a given server-side library of information instead of liberal internet access to scrape new information as it becomes written etc.

These are tools in the same way a hammer is a tool. AGI, then, is more akin to an automated factory complete with conveyor belts, robotic manufacturing, and an android foreman who can order supplies, fix breakages, as well as set up a new factory based on increasing demand. Big difference.

Are Siri, Alexa, and Cortana AI?

Digital voice assistants such as Siri, Alexa, and Cortana increasingly use AI. These virtual assistants from Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft respectively are very much still narrow AI systems, designed to be used as IR (Information Retrieval) interfaces in much the same way as Google. A search engine is not, by itself, artificially intelligent. That said, AI can enhance the speed at which they operate – increasing the efficiency with which crawlers check for updates, or the accuracy to which indexed and recalled pages match user queries on the front-end.

AI-generated adverts

AI can also enhance the relevancy of ads being shown to users – both post-creative and pre-creative. Not only can AI learn from your browsing data, and ultimately classify your interests to only show you ads that you are highly likely to act on, artificial intelligence can generate the ads – the images and videos known as “ad creative” – in a way that reflects your individual interests. This latter application is still in its infancy, but thanks to the respectable quality of photorealism seen in Midjourney, and now DALL-E 3, we can expect this to become a serious competitive business advantage in 2024.

Are chatbots AI?

AI Chatbots including ChatGPT, Google Bard, and Microsoft’s Bing Chat grow increasingly broad in aptitude and scope. With multimodality making impressive headway this year, it’s hard to call them narrow anymore. Still, none of the above constitutes AGI.

Conclusion

It’s hard to know where to draw the line between what is, and what isn’t, AI. A lack of understanding (an understandable one, I might add) of the complex topic has lead to many technologies being retrofitted with the badge of honour. Indeed, every tech company in 2023 feels the need to boast of their developments in AI lest they forfeit their next seed round to the next start-up willing to lie about it.