Is It Really AI or Just Automation?

A lot of digital devices, software, and features are being billed as AI (Artificial Intelligence), but are they really true AI or just traditional automation, much as computers have been doing for over 50 years (UNIVAC I in 1951) or since the 1890 census with Hollerith punched cards or even the punched cards of the Jacquard loom in 1804. At what point, level, or stage does computing cease being merely automation and suddenly constitute Artificial Intelligence?

Alas, there is no magic answer, other than to say that it is a purely subjective characterization to claim that a given form or level of automation is magically Artificial Intelligence.

Six criteria will be used in this informal paper to try to distinguish mere automation from more sophisticated AI:

  1. Any function that a human or an animal can perform. That’s the starting point, the initial filter.
  2. Distinguish functions that a human can perform that are distinct from functions that almost any animal can perform.
  3. Distinguish animal functions that are not easy, simple, and straightforward to program on a computer.
  4. Distinguish higher-order human intellectual functions that are not easy, simple, and straightforward to program on a computer.
  5. Distinguish difficult human intellectual functions which are merely complex information processing rather than complex from an intellectual perspective.
  6. Distinguish manual tasks performed exclusively by humans which are non-trivial to automate.

First we should consider possible definitions of automation and AI.

Automation could be a computer or other machine performing either:

  1. Any task which a human or animal could do.
  2. Any task which a human could do.
  3. Any intellectual task which a human could do.
  4. Any task which a human or animal could do that requires some degree of intelligence, including interpreting sensory perceptions, sensing the environment, and fine motor control that requires sensing the environment.

The definition of AI which I have previously used in my companion paper What is AI (Artificial Intelligence)? is:

  • AI is the capacity of a computer to approximate some fraction of the intellectual capacity of a human being.

I stick with the focus of that definition on intellectual capacity, but for purposes in this paper we’ll consider a somewhat broader and looser spectrum of possibilities:

  1. Anything that requires higher-order intellectual activity. Reasoning, logic, complex decisions, carefully considered judgment, planning, creativity, imagination, speculation, etc.
  2. Anything that requires any intellectual activity. Anything that even a 4-year old child could do.
  3. Anything that requires fine motor control requiring some degree of intelligence.
  4. Anything that requires interpretation of sensory perception of the environment.

Part of the intent there is to include robots, even those which mimic only animals rather than limiting the focus to the mimicking of only higher-order human intellectual capacities.

Just to get a few simpler cases out of the way, the following forms of automation would probably not be considered AI:

  • Washing machine.
  • Dish washer.
  • Vacuum cleaner.
  • Thermostat.
  • Garage door opener.
  • Textile and clothing power looms capable of being programmed for patterns.
  • Numerical control machines (CNC — Computer Numerical Control).
  • Player piano. Or any form of playing recorded music, speech, or video.

Granted, any of these could also be supplemented with AI features, but absent some specific AI features, their main functions don’t suggest AI per se.

A device or appliance such as a Roomba would represent the crossover from mere automation to the integration of AI due to its navigation abilities — interpreting sensory perception of the environment.

As a starting point for further discussion, consider:

  1. Human behavior and activities.
  2. Human social behavior and group activities.
  3. Human movement.
  4. Human sensory perception.
  5. Human intelligence.
  6. Human intellectual activities.
  7. Higher-order human intellectual activities.
  8. Human communication.
  9. Animal behavior and activities. Much of it shared with humans.
  10. Animal social behavior and group activities. Some degree shared with humans.
  11. Animal movement. Much of it shared with humans. Although we can’t fly like birds or swim like fish.
  12. Animal sensory perception. Much of it shared with humans. Animals do have some more refined senses though.
  13. Animal intelligence. Shared with humans.
  14. Animal intellectual activities? None that I am aware of.
  15. Animal communication. Some of it shared with humans.
  16. Distinctly human behavior and activities. Not shared with animals.
  17. Distinctly human social behavior and group activities. Not shared with animals. Large and complex organizations, including governments.
  18. Distinctly human movement. What little is not shared with animals. Ease of walking upright. Dance. Space travel. What else?
  19. Distinctly human sensory perception. Not shared with animals. Is there any?
  20. Distinctly human intelligence. Not shared with animals.
  21. Distinctly human intellectual activities. They are all distinctly human. Nothing in common with animals beyond animal-level intelligence.
  22. Distinctly human communication. Especially natural language, including the spoken and written word. Knowledge artifacts, including books.
  23. Common manual tasks of humans. From daily life.
  24. Less common manual tasks of humans. Work life. Manufacturing. Office tasks. Packing, shipping, and delivery.
  25. Advanced manual tasks. Complex assembly. Detail work. Laboratory work. Medicine.
  26. Basic information processing capabilities of humans. Stuff even high school students can be expected to handle.
  27. Advanced information processing. Stuff that may require a computer science degree.
  28. Scientific data processing. Stuff requiring a science degree or even a PhD.
  29. Complex information processing. A lot of data and complex relationships are involved, but not necessarily requiring any strictly higher-order intellect in its processing.
  30. The intelligence of children, even those barely able to speak.
  31. The intelligence of mature adults.
  32. The intelligence of trained professionals.
  33. The intelligence of so-called intellectuals.
  34. The intelligence of true geniuses.
  35. The intelligence of insects.
  36. The intelligence of small rodents.
  37. The intelligence of dogs. And monkeys, dolphins, pigs, horses, and elephants. Anything beyond the capacities of small rodents and reptiles.
  38. The intelligence of primates.
  39. Simulating behavior and activities of animals. Much in common with humans.
  40. Simulating social behavior and group activities of animals. Much in common with humans.
  41. Simulating movement of animals. Much in common with humans.
  42. Simulating sensory perception of animals. Much in common with humans.
  43. Simulating intelligence of animals. Subset of human intelligence.
  44. Simulating communication of animals. Some in common with humans.
  45. Simulating distinctly human behavior and activities. Beyond animals.
  46. Simulating distinctly human social behavior and group activities. Beyond animals.
  47. Simulating distinctly human movement. Beyond animals.
  48. Simulating distinctly human sensory perception. Beyond animals.
  49. Simulating distinctly human intelligence. Beyond animals.
  50. Simulating human intellectual activities. All distinct from animals.
  51. Simulating human communication. Speaking, understanding, writing, and reading natural language.

Those items constitute the menu for both automation and AI. The rest of this paper focuses on sorting out how those items can or should be categorized as mere automation in contrast with true artificial intelligence.

Some things that aren’t considered to be part of that list and aren’t really relevant to AI and automation include some but not all basic biological functions, otherwise considered part of behavior:

  1. Breathing.
  2. Eating.
  3. Hydration.
  4. Excretion.
  5. Bone structure.
  6. Blood.
  7. Secretions.
  8. Organs.
  9. Cell metabolism.
  10. Regulation of metabolic function.
  11. Reproduction and mating.

Although the goal of AI overall is not to simulate animals per se, it seems clear that doing so is an essential precursor to simulating humans, in terms of behavior (except the exclusions listed above), social behavior, movement, sensory perception, and many aspects of intelligence.

Granted, simulating animals will not get you even close to simulating distinctly human intelligence and certainly not higher-order human intellectual functions, but it will provide a solid and rich foundation as a starting point, especially when considering robotics.

The items on that main list that are especially human include:

  1. Distinctly human behavior and activities. Not shared with animals.
  2. Distinctly human social behavior and group activities. Not shared with animals. Large and complex organizations, including governments.
  3. Distinctly human movement. What little is not shared with animals. Ease of walking upright. Dance. Space travel. What else?
  4. Distinctly human sensory perception. Not shared with animals. Is there any?
  5. Distinctly human intelligence. Not shared with animals.
  6. Distinctly human intellectual activities. They are all distinctly human. Nothing in common with animals beyond animal-level intelligence.
  7. Distinctly human communication. Especially natural language, including the spoken and written word. Knowledge artifacts, including books.
  8. Common manual tasks of humans. From daily life.
  9. Less common manual tasks of humans. Work life. Manufacturing. Office tasks. Packing, shipping, and delivery.
  10. Advanced manual tasks. Complex assembly. Detail work. Laboratory work. Medicine.
  11. Basic information processing capabilities of humans. Stuff even high school students can be expected to handle.
  12. Advanced information processing. Stuff that may require a computer science degree.
  13. Scientific data processing. Stuff requiring a science degree or even a PhD.
  14. Complex information processing. A lot of data and complex relationships are involved, but not necessarily requiring any strictly higher-order intellect in its processing.

Again, we’re back at the starting point that unless you accept that a computer performing any task that a human is capable of is implicitly and by definition AI, we need to consider which tasks or functions may be mere automation rather than AI per se.

Some candidates for mere automation include:

  1. Tasks around the home.
  2. Tasks around the office.
  3. Tasks in a manufacturing plant.
  4. Tasks for a distribution center.
  5. Tasks around the community.
  6. Tasks in government.
  7. Organizing information.
  8. Arithmetic, statistics, and other calculations on collections of numbers.
  9. Sorting and searching through information.
  10. Querying and updating information.
  11. Spreadsheet calculations.
  12. Scientific and engineering calculations.
  13. Complex modeling.
  14. Word processing and document management.
  15. Photo, audio, and video editing.
  16. Archiving and libraries.

Many of the devices, machines, and software to handle or facilitate the tasks on that list can be reasonably sophisticated, but commonly won’t be considered AI, although elements of AI can be included in any of them.

The primary assertion of this informal paper is to focus attention on intellectual activity as opposed to manual activity, although a lot of the interest, especially for robotics, includes manual activity, a lot of which is shared with animals.

But what about the smart car feature of self-parking (parallel parking)? How intellectual is that really? Seems like mostly a manual process, right? But I think most people would currently consider it an AI feature.

Or anti-locking brakes on cars. There is certainly some clever real-time processing going on that would otherwise require a very alert driver, but most people today would not refer to this otherwise hidden feature of average cars to be some magical AI feature.

Or a self-driving car. It simply goes from point A to point B with lots of turning, accelerating, and braking, which are primarily manual operations that hardly require any significant intellectual effort when a human is driving a normal car. But a self-driving vehicle would certainly be considered AI, at least today, although much of that may really be due primarily to its novelty and sophistication rather than any true intelligence or higher-order intellectual capacity.

Or look at the movement and actions of animals, whether dogs, higher primates, rodents, small birds, or even miniscule insects. How much intellectual effort do they need, all without the need of big brains like us humans? Still, building machines to mimic such movements and actions are commonly accepted as being in the domain of AI.

Robots are almost uniformly considered AI when so much of what they do, try to do, or hope to eventually do is hardly more the the behavior of relatively simple animals, even small rodents and insects.

Somehow, we currently consider movement and navigation in the real world as being AI, despite the fact that little in the way of higher-order intellect is required.

As discussed in my previous paper, What Is AI (Artificial Intelligence)?, intelligence or intellectual capacity includes quite a few mental functions and mental processes, not all of which are focused on higher-order intellectual activity such as reasoning or anything resembling what we consider human-level thinking:

  • Perception
  • Attention
  • Recognition
  • Communication
  • Processing
  • Memory
  • Following rules
  • Decision
  • Volition or will
  • Movement and motor control
  • Behavior

Even relatively simple animals (or machines) require many of these mental functions and mental processes.

Most people would accept or expect that these capabilities should be considered AI, even if the behavior is not substantially more than that of animals and even insects.

Even then, it is a bit of a stretch to assert that these rudimentary functions and processes constitute intelligence per se.

Hmmm… can it really be AI if it is not intelligence? Good point. Artificial life (A-Life) would be a better term for a lot of what is being considered with robots and driverless vehicles, especially when it comes to robotics and sensory perception, but it’s probably easier to accept that AI covers a fair bit of A-Life, rather than confuse a lot of people who have enough trouble understanding artificial intelligence.

Maybe the real point is that although that list of functions and processes isn’t intelligence alone, they are precursors or requirements in order for a machine to interact and behave in an intelligent manner. After all, what good is intelligence without the ability to perceive, communicate, and act in some intelligent manner?

The remaining mental functions and mental processes from the What is AI list are more clearly higher-order intellectual capacities, which appear to distinguish human intelligence from animal intelligence:

  1. Natural language. Communication beyond that of animals.
  2. Learning. Beyond the basic forms of learning of even animals. Concepts. Knowledge.
  3. Analysis.
  4. Speculation, imagination, and creativity.
  5. Synthesis.
  6. Reasoning.
  7. Following rules. More complex rules, especially with conditions and nuances, beyond what animals can do. Includes games (checkers, chess, Go, Jeopardy.)
  8. Applying heuristics. In an intelligent manner, rather than in a rote, blind, mechanical manner common in mere automation.
  9. Intuitive leaps.
  10. Mathematics.
  11. Decision. More complex decisions and consequences, beyond what animals can do.
  12. Planning.

Granted, designers and engineers may use such intellectual capacities to produce machines, devices, and software which automate tasks, but it is only when the created system exhibits such higher-order intellectual capacities that we would feel obligated to characterize the system as possessing AI.

Finishing off that thought, we will define higher-order intellectual activity as the use of the higher-order intellectual capacities on that list, those special capacities which distinguish humans from animals.

Beyond basic manual tasks and automation of basic information processing, more complex tasks which are clearly automation and clearly involve very sophisticated processing but just don’t seem to warrant classification as AI per se include:

  1. Computer chip design.
  2. Electronic circuit design.
  3. Integrated circuit layout.
  4. Chip and circuit simulation.
  5. Chip and circuit testing.
  6. Exoplanet detection.
  7. Nuclear weapon design and simulation.
  8. High energy physics.
  9. Human flight.
  10. Space flight.
  11. Space missions.
  12. Space stations.
  13. Protein folding. Even the most simple creatures do it so easily and with no apparent intelligence per se!
  14. Computer operating systems.
  15. Computer networking software.
  16. Word processor software.
  17. Spreadsheet software.
  18. Photo and video editing software.
  19. Accounting.
  20. Payroll.
  21. Inventory management.
  22. Supply chain management.
  23. Personnel records.
  24. Scheduling.
  25. Operations research.
  26. Optimization.
  27. Machine control.
  28. Biomedical devices.
  29. Real-time monitoring of environmental conditions.
  30. Real-time control and feedback. May or may not included simple devices such as a thermostat.
  31. Database systems.
  32. Search engines. The basics. Addition of AI-like features becoming common.
  33. Elevators.

Granted, specific, niche AI features can find application within any of those automated tasks, but the tasks themselves don’t seem to provide evidence that the computer is engaging in higher-order intellectual activity as would be expected for an AI system.

The software is certainly an artifact of higher-order human intellectual activity, but doesn’t seem able to engage in such activity itself.

There are plenty of borderline tasks which aren’t necessarily AI per se, but are more than mere automation of simple or straightforward tasks, including:

  1. Spelling checkers and correctors.
  2. Grammar checkers and suggesters.
  3. Auto-suggest search engine keywords.
  4. Goal-seeking numeric problem solvers. Such as in spreadsheet software.
  5. Anti-locking brakes.
  6. Auto-focus cameras.
  7. Acoustic echo cancellation.
  8. Steadicam and other camera stabilization systems.
  9. Automatic color and brightness correction.
  10. Delivery routing.
  11. Basic automated online customer service chat.

And then there are borderline tasks which are now commonly accepted as automation but at least have roots in AI, including:

  1. Document scanning and character recognition.
  2. Letter address recognition.
  3. Voice recognition.
  4. Recommendation software. Based on mutual interests.
  5. Aircraft collision alert.
  6. Aircraft height alert.

And finally we have tasks which are not so dissimilar from some of these mere automation tasks but are commonly accepted as AI, at least at the present moment:

  1. Vehicle collision alert.
  2. Self-parking cars.
  3. Facial recognition.
  4. Photo searching.
  5. Searching for similar documents.
  6. Heuristics that approximate intelligent activity without being truly intelligent.
  7. Basic question and answer user interfaces. They can seem intelligent, but generally rely heavily or primarily on heuristics.
  8. More sophisticated automated online customer service chat.
  9. Intelligent digital assistants.
  10. Driverless vehicles.

Are all heuristics AI?

The use of heuristics is common in most disciplines. They are shortcuts or approximations. They provide most of the benefit of true intelligence at a fraction of the cost and without requiring deep, higher-order intellectual capacity.

Heuristics have the allure that they appear or seem to be comparable to intelligence, but they have limitations that a true, human-level intelligence would not.

They constitute a gray area between mere automation and true intelligence.

Robotics

Much of robotics revolves around sensors and mechanical motions in the real world, seeming to have very little to do with any intellectual activity per se, so one could question how much of robotics is really AI.

Alternatively, one could say that sensors, movement, and activity enable acting on intellectual interests and intentions, thus meriting coverage under the same umbrella as AI.

In addition, it can be pointed out that a lot of fine motor control requires a distinct level of processing that is more characteristic of intelligence than mere rote mechanical movement.

In summary, the reader has a choice as to how much of robotics to include under the umbrella of AI:

  1. Only those components directly involved in intellectual activity.
  2. Also sensors that provide the information needed for intellectual activity.
  3. Also fine motor control and use of end effectors. Including grasping delicate objects and hand-eye coordination.
  4. Also any movement which enables pursuit of intellectual interests and intentions.
  5. Any structural elements or resource management needed to support the other elements of a robotic system.
  6. Any other supporting components, subsystems, or infrastructure needed to support the other elements of a robotic system.
  7. All components of a robotic system, provided that the overall system has at least some minimal intellectual capacity. That’s the point of an AI system. A mindless, merely mechanical robot with no intelligence would not constitute an AI system.

In short, it’s not too much of a stretch to include virtually all of robotics under the rubric of AI — provided there is at least some element of intelligence in the system, although one may feel free to be more selective in specialized contexts.

Conclusion

You, the reader, have several choices to accept from:

  1. The primary criterion for whether a system or feature is AI is whether it exhibits higher-order intellectual capacity.
  2. A secondary criterion for whether a system or feature is AI is whether it requires interpretation of sensory perception to recognize objects in the real world and possibly exhibits fine motor control to navigate relative to observed objects. This covers robots. This should more properly be called artificial life (A-Life), but common usage considers this AI.
  3. The non-intellectual aspects of robotics, if they seem to directly or indirectly enable and support intellectual activity of the robot.
  4. Any form of automation that automates any task that can be performed by a human (or an animal) is by definition AI.
  5. Automation of any task that requires any fraction of intelligence, human or animal is by definition AI. Including sensory perception and fine motor control, even if no complex reasoning, advanced learning, or complex planning is involved.
  6. Any automation which requires a significant degree of complexity can be considered AI, especially if it is simulating the activity of a person when they are using higher-order intellectual capacities.
  7. Whether the use of heuristics to approximate intelligence is sufficient to be considered intelligence.
  8. The non-intellectual aspects of robotics, if they seem to directly or indirectly enable and support intellectual activity of the robot.

Personally, I prefer the first three choices, including robots which mimic animals, but I also accept that some may prefer the other choices, as stated or with additional nuances.

So, I personally would not consider most traditional software or even a lot of modern or even smart software unless it exhibits higher-order intellectual capacities.

I accept robots and driverless vehicles as being AI. Although we should start calling them artificial life (A-Life.)

Intelligent digital assistants are in a gray area. They are generally more heuristic or use specialized, niche AI features rather than being broad AI systems capable of a wide range of higher-order intellectual activity. They’re more about automation than higher-order intelligence. That said, I’ll accept that they fall under the AI rubric, at least for now.

Of course, what current AI systems evolve into in the coming years and decades is another matter.

Ten to twenty years from now people will look back and probably call current AI systems mere toys, and laugh that we considered them to be intelligent.

But thirty years from now people won’t be laughing anymore about our current technology at all. That’s because (at least according to Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity) the robots will have taken over. Instead, it will be the robots laughing that we considered ourselves to be intelligent.

But I’ll try to limit my analysis and speculation to the present and near future.

Written by

Freelance Consultant

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