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narrow AI (weak AI)

This definition is part of our Essential Guide: Special Report: Artificial intelligence apps come of age
Contributor(s): Ivy Wigmore

Narrow AI is an application of artificial intelligence technologies to enable a high-functioning system that replicates – and perhaps surpasses -- human intelligence for a dedicated purpose. 

Many current systems can be classified as narrow AI. One well-known example is IBM’s Watson supercomputer, which applies cognitive computing, machine learning and natural language processing to perform as a “question answering” machine. Watson actually out-performed human contestant Ken Jennings to become the champion on the popular game show, Jeopardy! Essentially, Watson is a type of expert system, a computer program that uses AI technologies to simulate the knowledge and cognitive ability of a human within a particular realm. Subsequent expert systems based on Watson include an artificially-intelligent attorney and a medical research assistant.

Most narrow AI applications are much less sophisticated than Watson. Any software that uses technologies like machine learning, data mining, pattern recognition and natural language processing to autonomously make decisions can be considered narrow AI. As such, narrow AI systems include spam filters, self-driving cars and Facebook’s newsfeed.

Narrow AI is also known as weak AI, in contrast with strong AI (which is also known as artificial general intelligence). Strong AI involves a system with comprehensive knowledge and cognitive capabiliities such that its performance is indistinguishable from that of a human, although its speed and ability to process data is far greater. Such a system has not yet been developed, and expert opinions differ as to the possibility that it ever might be.

This was last updated in July 2016

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