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The phrase “artificial intelligence” has become a buzzword recently, in fields ranging from computer science to manufacturing, and even health care. Although it is often heard, the term isn’t necessarily explained very clearly, which might leave some wondering what artificial intelligence actually is.

Artificial intelligence refers to computer systems that seem to think like humans and can make decisions in rational ways. All computers can perform tasks that they are programmed to do, that is, tasks for which a human has told the computer what steps to follow. Artificial intelligence takes that a step further and enables technology to learn novel tasks and respond to situations by deciding how to react based on the specific circumstances. Whereas most computers will do exactly what they have been told by human operators — the origin of the phrase “garbage in, garbage out” — and will not significantly adapt their responses unless programmed with new instructions, artificial intelligence creates technology that seems to interact with information in ways that mirror human cognition.

Artificial intelligence works through machine learning processes, through which machines can figure out how to do something new over time based on previous experiences. This type of learning leverages the natural strength of computers: their ability to quickly and efficiently process large amounts of data. To create artificial intelligence, the technological system ingests information and analyzes it to determine patterns within the data. Based on the patterns the computer finds, it can predict the outcomes of various potential courses of action and choose to implement the one that seems most likely to lead to the desired result. Systems like this get smarter over time as they collect more data and use it to further refine the decisions they make.

As artificial intelligence capabilities continue to develop, myriad applications will arise. It’s already making a notable impact in high-tech fields, and possible future uses include things highly relevant to most people’s lives, such as self-driving cars. Using artificial intelligence will allow machines to do what they are capable of (and even potentially better at than humans) — recognizing and reacting to patterns in big data, while freeing up people’s time and cognitive capacity for those tasks to which humans are uniquely suited – mainly creative pursuits and generating innovative new ideas.