Explaining what’s at the roots of AI to a gardener…

Over a creamy latte in the local Starbucks last week, an academic friend who was struggling with part of his lecture course to students asked the Badger “How would you explain the what’s at the roots of Artificial Intelligence and machine learning to your gardener?”. The Badger just gulped and took the easy option by saying ‘No idea’. Since then, however, the question has been in the Badger’s brain demanding an answer!

Of course, marketing pitches, academic papers, and short readable articles on AI and machine learning (ML) are readily available. One, for example, describing the difference between AI and ML simply is here. But an answer that simply refers to readily available content on the internet would be a cop out, so after much lateral, off the wall thought the Badger decided the answer a gardener might actually relate to involves mathematics!

Mathematics has evolved over thousands of years from simple counting to embrace calculation, measurement, geometry, algebra, trigonometry, logarithms, calculus, statistics and much more as well as today’s increasingly abstract sophistications. Mathematics is always evolving. Mathematical thinking in Alan Turing’s Enigma code cracking era was very different to that of Isaac Newton’s era, which itself was very different to that in the ancient times of Pythagoras or Archimedes. Indeed, mathematical thinking has evolved even further since Turing’s time. Without mathematics and its evolution, we would never convert science into the material inventions that progress humanity. Today’s air and space travel, navigation, communications, manufacturing, banking and investment, MRI scanners in hospitals or indeed Alexa would not exist without mathematics!

So, to explain what’s at the roots of AI and ML to the gardener the Badger decided on the following answer. ‘It’s all about the mathematics. As mathematics advances, so does the panoply of possible inventions available. There’s nothing magical behind it. It’s just the meeting of mathematical advances, science and available technology opening up the possibility of inventions that can benefit people – just like it has for centuries.’

The Badger tested this with his brother-in-law, a self-employed gardener. His reaction? “Who cares. This is ultimately about screwing more money out of me to line someone else’s pocket. If some robot starts tidying my flower beds and taking my livelihood then it’ll see the teeth of my chainsaw pretty quick.” Expletives have been removed. Not quite the reaction expected! Conclusion? Notwithstanding the interesting point about money, the Badger was right to say ‘No idea’ when his academic friend asked the question!


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