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What is AI? We made this to help.

We made an podcast game to help you determine what is, or isn't, AI

November 18, 2020
What is AI flowchart

Defining what is, or isn’t artificial intelligence can be tricky (or tough). So much so, even the experts get it wrong sometimes. That’s why MIT Technology Review’s Senior AI Reporter Karen Hao created a flowchart to explain it all. In this bonus content our Host Jennifer Strong and her team reimagine Hao’s reporting, gamifying it into an audio postcard of sorts. 


This episode was reported by Karen Hao. It was adapted for audio and produced by Jennifer Strong and Emma Cillekens. The voices you heard were Emma Cillekens, as well as Eric Mongeon and Kyle Thomas Hemingway from our art team. We’re edited by Michael Reilly and Niall Firth.


Strong: Hi there... I’m Jennifer Strong, senior editor for live journalism, podcasts and host of the series, In Machines We Trust.

Hao: And I’m Karen Hao, Tech Review’s senior reporter covering artificial intelligence. 

Strong: We’re at the biggest conference of the year for our newsroom diving into trends in emerging technology - it’s called EmTech.

Hao: But don’t worry, We aren’t going to leave you empty handed.

Strong: No, not at all. Thank you so much for being here and as a way to show our appreciation, we made you a little gift. 

Hao: A while back I drew something to help make sense of a really basic question, so basic, and yet… so important. We return to it constantly in our work to try to make sure we’re all on the same page.

Strong: Karen’s drawing helps us tease out whether something actually involves artificial intelligence.

Hao: That’s because it’s confusing! Even to experts. Companies claiming to use AI also fail this test more often than you might think.

Strong: Problem is, you can’t see me holding it up right now. And so, instead, we’ve gamified it into what I think of as an audio postcard.

Hao: Yes, it’s a wonderful audio postcard. Have fun! 

Cillekens: Ladies and gentlemen... “Welcome to ‘This is AI”!


Players will ask questions that get to the bottom of what it is or isn’t AI. And I’ve brought along an “assistant” to help out with the answers.

Voice Assistant: Hello. 

Cillekens: Hello, Alexa. And just so we’re all on the same page… Artificial Intelligence... in its broadest sense refers to machines that can learn, reason, and act for themselves. They can make their own decisions when faced with new situations, much like humans and animals do. This bell...

[Bell ding to indicate correct answer]

...means correctly identified AI… and this buzzer...

[Buzzer to indicate false answer]

Well, not so much. Ok. So, let’s test your knowledge.. Ready... set… player one, go!

Mongeon: Can ‘it’ see?

Voice Assistant: Yes

Mongeon: Can it identify what it sees?

Voice Assistant: No

[Buzzer to indicate false answer]

Cillekens: Ok, so that’s just a camera.

Mongeon:...ok ok… but what if it can identify what it sees? 

[Bell ding to indicate correct answer]

Cillekens: Yep - that’s computer vision and image processing. Player two!

Hemingway: Can it hear?

Voice Assistant: Yes

Hemingway: Does it respond in a useful, sensible way to what it hears?

Voice Assistant: Yes 

[Bell ding to indicate correct answer]

Cillekens: So, that’s N-L-P - natural language processing. The goal of this kind of A-I is to help computers make sense of human languages in a way that’s useful. But..????. what if it doesn’t respond in a useful, sensible was to what it hears... Could that also be A-I?

Hemingway: If it's transcribing what you say? 

[Bell ding to indicate correct answer]

Cillekens: That’s also A-I -- it’s speech recognition…// which is similar but working from the spoken word instead of text. New round of questions! Player 1.

Mongeon: Can it read?

Voice Assistant: Yes

Mongeon: Is it reading what you type?

Voice Assistant: No

Mongeon: Is it reading passages of text? 

Voice Assistant: Yes

Mongeon: Is it analyzing the text for patterns?

Voice Assistant: Yes

[Bell ding to indicate correct answer]

Cillekens: Once again that’s N-L-P - natural language processing. Well done! 

Hemingway: I’ll take that same question again. Can it read?

Voice Assistant: Yes

Hemingway: Is it reading what you type?

Voice Assistant: Yes

Hemingway: Does it respond in a sensible, useful way? 

Voice Assistant: Yes

[Bell ding to indicate correct answer]

Cillekens: Ok - that’s also N-L-P - natural language processing. New question please player 1.

Mongeon: Can it reason?

Voice Assistant: Yes

Mongeon: Is it looking for patterns in massive amounts of data? 

Voice Assistant: Yes

Mongeon: Is it using these patterns to make decisions?

Cillekens: Well, if not, that sounds like math…. 

Mongeon: But if it is using patterns to make decisions?

Voice Assistant: Yes

[Bell ding to indicate correct answer]

Cillekens: Then that’s machine learning - which is when a machine learns through experience. Final round!

Hemingway: Can it move?

Voice Assistant: Yes

Hemingway: By itself, without help?

Voice Assistant: Yes

Hemingway: Does it move based on what it sees and hears? 

Voice Assistant: Yes

Hemingway: Are you sure it’s not just moving along a pre-programmed path?

Voice Assistant: Hmmm. I’m not sure.

Cillekens: Very funny… but if so, that’s just a bot.

[Buzzer to indicate false answer]

Hemingway: Ok, let’s try that again. Is it moving along a pre-programmed path?

Voice Assistant: No.

[Bell ding to indicate correct answer]

Cillekens: Ok, so that’s a smart robot, meaning one that’s using A-I to make some of its own decisions. Great….And that’s the game. Thanks for playing!


Strong: We’re going to take a short break - but first, I want to suggest another show I think you'll like. Brave New Planet weighs the pros and cons of a wide range of powerful innovations in science and tech. Dr. Eric Lander, who directs the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, explores hard questions like...

Lander: Should we alter the Earth’s atmosphere to prevent climate change? And can truth and democracy survive the impact of deepfakes? 

Strong: Brave New Planet is from Pushkin industries. You can find it wherever you get your podcasts. We’ll be back right after this.


Strong: Welcome back to this bonus episode of In Machines We Trust. We’re at our EmTech Conference this week... and so instead of coming to you with a regular episode... we made something fun that hopefully helps clear up some confusion around what is or isn’t A-I...

Hao: And if you’d like to see what it looks like on paper, you can check out my drawing. It’s called “What is A-I” at Technology Review dot com.

Strong: In the meantime, Karen and I are going to put our heads together and pick out something to play for you from the conference… so keep an eye out for that.

Hao: We’re also working on another short series about the many ways facial recognition is used in things like retail and sports… we hope you’ll join us


Strong: Many thanks to the talented voices in this episode -- including our producer, Emma Cillekens, and our art team -- Eric Mongeon and Kyle Thomas Hemingway. Which, by the way, if you like our cover art you just heard the folks who made it. Karen Hao did the reporting and it was adapted by me, Jennifer Strong. Our editors are Michael Reilly and Niall Firth.  

Hao: Tell us what you think. Love it? Hate it? Have suggestions for what you’d like to hear next? Please send us feedback to podcasts at technology review dot com. 


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