Explain AI to me like A five-year-old…or a CEO

The field of artificial intelligence is big, so it can be hard to find a definition of AI that’s easy to get a handle on. In this post, I’ll take what I think is the gold-standard definition of AI for business people and try to bring it to life.

But could we take our definition of AI and make it even simpler? How about a rewording that only uses words that any native English speaking five-year-old could understand?

Explain AI to me like I’m a CEO

AI technologies learn patterns. That’s what make them powerful for doing things like, say, driving customer engagement. Consider all the ways your company can interact with customers—which ones actually work with which people?

AI systems can figure out how to distinguish good customer journeys from bad ones in order to build better relationships. But that’s a fairly integrate.ai-centric example. Let’s look for a more general business definition.

Andrew Ng, one of the leading experts in AI, summarized AI in terms of its core use cases:

Almost all of AI’s recent progress is through one type, in which some input data (A) is used to quickly generate some simple response (B).


For the more practically oriented, here’s a useful rule-of-thumb:

If a typical person can do a mental task with less than one second of thought, we can probably automate it using AI either now or in the near future.

A relatively small number of companies do a great deal of AI research—like Baidu, Google, and Facebook. But there are a lot of companies that can benefit from these technologies without doing AI research themselves. As Kristian Hammond, Chief Scientist at Narrative Science, writes:

As the market has matured, AI is beginning to move into enterprises that will use it but not develop it on their own. They see intelligent systems as solutions for sales, logistics, manufacturing, and business intelligence challenges. They hope AI can improve productivity, automate existing process, provide predictive analysis, and extract meaning from massive datasets. For them, AI is a competitive advantage, but not part of their core product.

Let’s look at the notion of automation. If you see workers primarily as expensive cogs in the corporate machine, well of course you want to automate them away. This is a myopic view of what happens in businesses. It focuses on efficiency and misses the main opportunity, which is helping humans be more creative, strategic and efficient. Building off their book, Only Humans Need Apply: Winners and Losers in the Age of Smart Machines, Thomas Davenport and Julia Kirby write:

Intelligent machines…do not usher people out the door, much less relegate them to doing the bidding of robot overlords. In some cases, these machines will allow us to take on tasks that are superior—more sophisticated, more fulfilling, better suited to our strengths—to anything we have given up. In other cases, the tasks will simply be different from anything computers can do well. In almost all situations, however, they will be less codified and structured; otherwise computers would already have taken them over.

Explain AI to me like I’m five

Okay, so it should be clear by now why most CEOs are paying attention to the potential of AI, but what if we want to explain AI even more fundamentally? What if we want to go from explanations that are meaningful to business leaders to … pretty much anyone?


Data from language acquisition studies show a lot of words associated with AI won’t work for a 5-year-old.

But how about the following?

AI is when you make a computer like a little brain. You help it to learn by giving it a lot of words and pictures and numbers. If the computer hears you answer a lot of questions, later on it can quickly answer your questions. But it only knows what you show it and tell it, so it’s not as smart as you are.

The only word in here that the data doesn’t support is computer, but other child language data sources (like CHILDES) show that at least some four-year-olds know and even use computer.

Have a five-year old to try it on? Send us their response—ideally in video or audio! (I guess if you’re a CEO, feel free to send us videos, too?)

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