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Exciting developments in computer technology have brought terms like artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning into common use. Customer engagement solution vendors are working to find ways to incorporate this technology and, of course, to enhance the relevant marketing messages. While related, AI and machine learning are different and should not be conflated.

AI is the concept; machine learning is a means

While it rarely pays to be pedantic, even in technology analysis, it is important to understand the terms in use. Using the wrong jargon may not change the substance of helicopter-view discussions, but as topics become more concrete, precision becomes increasingly necessary.

In the current case, artificial intelligence is the umbrella term for creating machines that behave in ways that mimic human intelligence. It is always appropriate to invoke AI at the start of a discussion, but it rapidly loses relevance at more granular levels. Machine learning is one approach to AI research, wherein the machine is taught how to learn, rather than being programmed with knowledge. It is given raw data and a desired outcome, then left to figure out the best way to use the former to achieve the latter.

One good analogy for this relationship is that if AI is an ice cream manufacturer’s test kitchen, machine learning is vanilla ice cream – the flavor upon which most other popular ones are built. It may not be the only one, but the stock is always moving.

The reason it is still important to differentiate between AI in general and machine learning specifically is that machine learning has been the branch with the most visible and recent successes. While AI encompasses machine learning, it is not a matryoshka doll; other topics in AI (including reasoning, planning, and perception) do not fit within machine learning. Machine learning is the current golden child of AI, and misguided attempts to link other projects to it via name-dropping can only lead to confusion and disappointment.


Further reading

Act on Your Intelligence: An AI Roadmap for Service Providers, ME0002-000769 (July 2017)

"AI is transforming business and impacting many industries," IT0022-001026 (July 2017)


Marshall Lager, Senior Analyst, Customer Engagement

[email protected]