What is AI and where did it come from?

Even though the term Artificial Intelligence is in nearly everybody’s everyday vocabulary, most people will not be able to explain it. And even amongst those who can explain what AI is, there are many who go silent if you asked for the history of AI.

If you are one of those people, do not worry and keep reading.

This is the first blog post in a blog post series about the history of AI. During the next month, we will publish a number of articles dealing with the biggest milestones in the history of AI. This is your chance to learn something about history which is not taught in school but has implications on our everyday life and the future. We will try our best to make this series understandable for readers with only limited knowledge of the concepts of Artificial Intelligence, introducing concepts as they appear.

The Definition of Artificial Intelligence

Looking into the most well-known encyclopaedias and dictionaries, Artificial Intelligence is usually defined as the ability of a machine (a computer, a robot etc.) to perform intelligent tasks which simulate human thinking or would require some form of intelligence to be performed.

This itself is not too surprising, as it is somewhat entailed in the term itself. But what is behind this definition? How does Machine Learning, Neural Networks and all the other increasingly popular terms fit into this image?

To understand where we are now, it might be a good idea to start at the beginning. And in the case of AI, the beginning is rather close but its foundations go back to the time of Aristotle.

Dartmouth Workshop Proposal Quote
The Dartmouth Workshop is now commonly referred to as the founding event of AI

The foundations of AI

There are a number of disciplines which are considered to form the foundation of AI. Without a doubt the oldest is Philosophy. In the time of the ancient Greek, Aristotle’s Syllogism formed the basis of a field which is now known as Logics. Next to Logics, also philosophical questions of what knowledge is and where it comes from are ways Philosophy contributed to Artificial Intelligence.

But the list of other disciplines which contribute noticeably to AI is long and can be found in Formal Science (Mathematics, Computer Science) as well as Social Science (Psychology, Economics, and Neuroscience, which is an interdisciplinary discipline itself). This diversity shows that Artificial Intelligence is a somewhat special discipline. It does not entirely fit into the natural sciences area but it also does not fit any other discipline.

The Beginnings

The term AI was first mentioned in 1956 in a two-month workshop proposal at Dartmouth College:

“We propose that a 2-month, 10-man study of artificial intelligence be carried out during the summer of 1956 at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. The study is to proceed on the basis of the conjecture that every aspect of learning or any other feature of intelligence can in principle be so precisely described that a machine can be made to simulate it. An attempt will be made to find how to make machines use language, form abstractions and concepts, solve kinds of problems now reserved for humans, and improve themselves. We think that a significant advance can be made in one or more of these problems if a carefully selected group of scientists work on it together for a summer.”


This proposal was preceded by several works which are now considered to be highly influential for the founding of AI as its own disciplines. Examples for this are the Turing Test (1950), by Alan Turing as well as his theory of computation (1948); Shannon’s information theory (1948 ) and Norbert Wiener Cybernetics (1948). Surprisingly enough, from today’s point of view, the mentioning of the first neural networks also fall in this time. Pitts and McCulloch showed how networks (which researchers later would call neural networks) can perform logical functions in their paper “A logical calculus of the ideas immanent in nervous activity” (1943).

The Dartmouth Workshop

“We think that a significant advance can be made in one or more of these problems if a carefully selected group of scientists work on it together for a summer.” This last sentence from the above-quoted proposal will just be the beginning of a number of overestimations in the field of AI. Despite the high ambitions, the Dartmouth workshop did not lead to any breakthroughs. However, this workshop is now considered to be the founding event of Artificial Intelligence and for this, it earned its place in the history of AI.

After the Summer

Since the 1956, AI has seen ups and downs. The first initial hype ended with the AI winter when researchers came to realize that their high expectations could not be met. It went so far that the United Kingdom stopped AI programs at all but two universities. That this time is over now is obvious. If the time of overestimation of AI possibilities is over, however, is something yet to be discovered.

Next in the Series…

Are you interested in a deeper dive into the history of AI? The next blog posts in this series will take a deal the events preceding the Dartmouth college. What did Shannon’s information theory entail? What does the Turing test actually test? And how are Pitt’s and McCulloch’s networks related to today’s neural networks?
Afterwards, we will continue our journey through the history of AI, continuing our story with the Dartmouth conference and eventually reaching the state of the art.

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Russell, S. J., & Norvig, P. (2016). Artificial intelligence: a modern approach. Malaysia; Pearson Education Limited,.