What is generative AI? The evolution of artificial intelligence

Generative AI is an umbrella term for any kind of automated process that uses algorithms to produce, manipulate, or synthesize data, often in the form of images or human-readable text. It’s called generative because the AI creates something that didn’t previously exist. That’s what makes it different from discriminative AI, which draws distinctions between different kinds of input. To say it differently, discriminative AI tries to answer a question like “Is this image a drawing of a rabbit or a lion?” whereas generative AI responds to prompts like “Draw me a picture of a lion and a rabbit sitting next to each other.”

This article introduces you to generative AI and its uses with popular models like ChatGPT and DALL-E. We’ll also consider the limitations of the technology, including why “too many fingers” has become a dead giveaway for artificially generated art.

The emergence of generative AI

Generative AI has been around for years, arguably since ELIZA, a chatbot that simulates talking to a therapist, was developed at MIT in 1966. But years of work on AI and machine learning have recently come to fruition with the release of new generative AI systems. You’ve almost certainly heard about ChatGPT, a text-based AI chatbot that produces remarkably human-like prose. DALL-E and Stable Diffusion have also drawn attention for their ability to create vibrant and realistic images based on text prompts. We often refer to these systems and others like them as models because they represent an attempt to simulate or model some aspect of the real world based on a subset (sometimes a very large one) of information about it.

Output from these systems is so uncanny that it has many people asking philosophical questions about the nature of consciousness—and worrying about the economic impact of generative AI on human jobs. But while all these artificial intelligence creations are undeniably big news, there is arguably less going on beneath the surface than some may assume. We’ll get to some of those big-picture questions in a moment. First, let’s look at what’s going on under the hood of models like ChatGPT and DALL-E.

How does generative AI work?

Generative AI uses machine learning to process a huge amount of visual or textual data, much of which is scraped from the internet, and then determine what things are most likely to appear near other things. Much of the programming work of generative AI goes into creating algorithms that can distinguish the “things” of interest to the AI’s creators—words and sentences in the case of chatbots like ChatGPT, or visual elements for DALL-E. But fundamentally, generative AI creates its output by assessing an enormous corpus of data on which it’s been trained, then responding to prompts with something that falls within the realm of probability as determined by that corpus.

Autocomplete—when your cell phone or Gmail suggests what the remainder of the word or sentence you’re typing might be—is a low-level form of generative AI. Models like ChatGPT and DALL-E just take the idea to significantly more advanced heights.

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