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Artificial intelligence (AI) vs. machine learning (ML): Key comparisons

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Table of contents

  • What is artificial intelligence (AI)? 
    • Common AI applications
    • Types of AI
  • What is machine learning (ML)?
    • Types of ML
    • Common ML applications
    • AI vs. ML: 3 key similarities
      • 1. Continuously evolving
      • 2. Offering myriad benefits
      • 3. Leveraging Big Data
      • AI vs. ML: 3 key differences
        • 1. Scope
        • 2. Success vs. accuracy
        • 3. Unique outcomes
        • Identifying the differences between AI and ML
        • Within the last decade, the terms artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) have become buzzwords that are often used interchangeably. While AI and ML are inextricably linked and share similar characteristics, they are not the same thing. Rather, ML is a major subset of AI.

          AI and ML technologies are all around us, from the digital voice assistants in our living rooms to the recommendations you see on Netflix. 

          Despite AI and ML penetrating several human domains, there’s still much confusion and ambiguity regarding their similarities, differences and primary applications.

          Here’s a more in-depth look into artificial intelligence vs. machine learning, the different types, and how the two revolutionary technologies compare to one another.

          What is artificial intelligence (AI)? 

          AI is defined as computer technology that imitate(s) a human’s ability to solve problems and make connections based on insight, understanding and intuition.

          The field of AI rose to prominence in the 1950s. However, mentions of artificial beings with intelligence can be identified earlier throughout various disciplines like ancient philosophy, Greek mythology and fiction stories.

          One notable project in the 20th century, the Turing Test, is often referred to when referencing AI’ history. Alan Turing, also referred to as “the father of AI,” created the test and is best known for creating a code-breaking computer that helped the Allies in World War II understand secret messages being sent by the German military. 

          The Turing Test, is used to determine if a machine is capable of thinking like a human being. A computer can only pass the Turing Test if it responds to questions with answers that are indistinguishable from human responses.

          Three key capabilities of a computer system powered by AI include intentionality, intelligence and adaptability. AI systems use mathematics and logic to accomplish tasks, often encompassing large amounts of data, that otherwise wouldn’t be practical or possible. 

          Common AI applications

          Modern AI is used by many technology companies and their customers. Some of the most common AI applications today include:

          • Advanced web search engines (Google)
          • Self-driving cars (Tesla)
          • Personalized recommendations (Netflix, YouTube)
          • Personal assistants (Amazon Alexa, Siri)

          One example of AI that stole the spotlight was in 2011, when IBM’s Watson, an AI-powered supercomputer, participated on the popular TV game show Jeopardy! Watson shook the tech industry to its core after beating two former champions, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter.

          Outside of game show use, many industries have adopted AI applications to improve their operations, from manufacturers deploying robotics to insurance companies improving their assessment of risk.

          Also read: How AI is changing the way we learn languages 

          Types of AI

          AI is often divided into two categories: narrow AI and general AI. 

          • Narrow AI: Many modern AI applications are considered narrow AI, built to complete defined, specific tasks. For example, a chatbot on a business’s website is an example of narrow AI. Another example is an automatic translation service, such as Google Translate. Self-driving cars are another application of this. 
          • General AI: General AI differs from narrow AI because it also incorporates machine learning (ML) systems for various purposes. It can learn more quickly than humans and complete intellectual and performance tasks better. 

          Regardless of if an AI is categorized as narrow or general, modern AI is still somewhat limited. It cannot communicate exactly like humans, but it can mimic emotions. However, AI cannot truly have or “feel” emotions like a person can.

          What is machine learning (ML)?

          Machine learning (ML) is considered a subset of AI, whereby a set of algorithms builds models based on sample data, also called training data. 

          The main purpose of an ML model is to make accurate predictions or decisions based on historical data. ML solutions use vast amounts of semi-structured and structured data to make forecasts and predictions with a high level of accuracy.

          In 1959, Arthur Samuel, a pioneer in AI and computer gaming, defined ML as a field of study that enables computers to continuously learn without being explicitly programmed.

          An ML model exposed to new data continuously learns, adapts and develops on its own. Many businesses are investing in ML solutions because they assist them with decision-making, forecasting future trends, learning more about their customers and gaining other valuable insights.

          Types of ML

          There are three main types of ML: supervised, unsupervised and reinforcement learning. A data scientist or other ML practitioner will use a specific version based on what they want to predict. Here’s what each type of ML entails:

          • Supervised ML: In this type of ML, data scientists will feed an ML model labeled training data. They will also define specific variables they want the algorithm to assess to identify correlations. In supervised learning, the input and output of information are specified.
          • Unsupervised ML: In unsupervised ML, algorithms train on unlabeled data, and the ML will scan through them to identify any meaningful connections. The unlabeled data and ML outputs are predetermined.
          • Reinforcement learning: Reinforcement learning involves data scientists training ML to complete a multistep process with a predefined set of rules to follow. Practitioners program ML algorithms to complete a task and will provide it with positive or negative feedback on its performance. 

          Common ML applications

          Major companies like Netflix, Amazon, Facebook, Google and Uber have ML a central part of their business operations. ML can be applied in many ways, including via:

          • Email filtering
          • Speech recognition
          • Computer vision (CV)
          • Spam/fraud detection
          • Predictive maintenance
          • Malware threat detection
          • Business process automation (BPA)

          Another way ML is used is to power digital navigation systems. For example, Apple and Google Maps apps on a smartphone use ML to inspect traffic, organize user-reported incidents like accidents or construction, and find the driver an optimal route for traveling. ML is becoming so ubiquitous that it even plays a role in determining a user’s social media feeds. 

          AI vs. ML: 3 key similarities

          AI and ML do share similar characteristics and are closely related. ML is a subset of AI, which essentially means it is an advanced technique for realizing it. ML is sometimes described as the current state-of-the-art version of AI.

          1. Continuously evolving

          AI and ML are both on a path to becoming some of the most disruptive and transformative technologies to date. Some experts say AI and ML developments will have even more of a significant impact on human life than fire or electricity. 

          The AI market size is anticipated to reach around $1,394.3 billion by 2029, according to a report from Fortune Business Insights. As more companies and consumers find value in AI-powered solutions and products, the market will grow, and more investments will be made in AI. The same goes for ML — research suggests the market will hit $209.91 billion by 2029. 

          2. Offering myriad benefits

          Another significant quality AI and ML share is the wide range of benefits they offer to companies and individuals. AI and ML solutions help companies achieve operational excellence, improve employee productivity, overcome labor shortages and accomplish tasks never done before.

          There are a few other benefits that are expected to come from AI and ML, including:

          • Improved natural language processing (NLP), another field of AI
          • Developing the Metaverse
          • Enhanced cybersecurity
          • Hyperautomation
          • Low-code or no-code technologies
          • Emerging creativity in machines

          AI and ML are already influencing businesses of all sizes and types, and the broader societal expectations are high. Investing in and adopting AI and ML is expected to bolster the economy, lead to fiercer competition, create a more tech-savvy workforce and inspire innovation in future generations.

          3. Leveraging Big Data

          Without data, AI and ML would not be where they are today. AI systems rely on large datasets, in addition to iterative processing algorithms, to function properly. 

          ML models only work when supplied with various types of semi-structured and structured data. Harnessing the power of Big Data lies at the core of both ML and AI more broadly.

          Because AI and ML thrive on data, ensuring its quality is a top priority for many companies. For example, if an ML model receives poor-quality information, the outputs will reflect that. 

          Consider this scenario: Law enforcement agencies nationwide use ML solutions for predictive policing. However, reports of police forces using biased training data for ML purposes have come to light, which some say is inevitably perpetuating inequalities in the criminal justice system. 

          This is only one example, but it shows how much of an impact data quality has on the functioning of AI and ML.

          Also read: What is unstructured data in AI?

          AI vs. ML: 3 key differences

          Even with the similarities listed above, AI and ML have differences that suggest they should not be used interchangeably. One way to keep the two straight is to remember that all types of ML are considered AI, but not all kinds of AI are ML.

          1. Scope

          AI is an all-encompassing term that describes a machine that incorporates some level of human intelligence. It’s considered a broad concept and is sometimes loosely defined, whereas ML is a more specific notion with a limited scope. 

          Practitioners in the AI field develop intelligent systems that can perform various complex tasks like a human. On the other hand, ML researchers will spend time teaching machines to accomplish a specific job and provide accurate outputs. 

          Due to this primary difference, it’s fair to say that professionals using AI or ML may utilize different elements of data and computer science for their projects.

          2. Success vs. accuracy

          Another difference between AI and ML solutions is that AI aims to increase the chances of success, whereas ML seeks to boost accuracy and identify patterns. Success is not as relevant in ML as it is in AI applications. 

          It’s also understood that AI aims to find the optimal solution for its users. ML is used more often to find a solution, optimal or not. This is a subtle difference, but further illustrates the idea that ML and AI are not the same. 

          In ML, there is a concept called the ‘accuracy paradox,’ in which ML models may achieve a high accuracy value, but can give practitioners a false premise because the dataset could be highly imbalanced.

          3. Unique outcomes

          AI is a much broader concept than ML and can be applied in ways that will help the user achieve a desired outcome. AI also employs methods of logic, mathematics and reasoning to accomplish its tasks, whereas ML can only learn, adapt or self-correct when it’s introduced to new data. In a sense, ML has more constrained capabilities than AI.

          ML models can only reach a predetermined outcome, but AI focuses more on creating an intelligent system to accomplish more than just one result. 

          It can be perplexing, and the differences between AI and ML are subtle. Suppose a business trained ML to forecast future sales. It would only be capable of making predictions based on the data used to teach it.

          However, a business could invest in AI to accomplish various tasks. For example, Google uses AI for several reasons, such as to improve its search engine, incorporate AI into its products and create equal access to AI for the general public. 

          Identifying the differences between AI and ML

          Much of the progress we’ve seen in recent years regarding AI and ML is expected to continue. ML has helped fuel innovation in the field of AI. 

          AI and ML are highly complex topics that some people find difficult to comprehend.

          Despite their mystifying natures, AI and ML have quickly become invaluable tools for businesses and consumers, and the latest developments in AI and ML may transform the way we live.

          Read next:Does AI sentience matter to the enterprise?

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