Picture a Captcha challenge, one of those grids separated into different segments of a single image, where the popup asks the viewer to identify all squares containing a particular marker, such as a car or a house. The typical human can complete this challenge in about 20 seconds, often less. Click, click, click … done.
Most people know this security measure is intended to tell people from bots, only giving the former access to the gated content. What many people don’t realize is why this is such an effective determinant of human or artificial intelligence. The answer is because image recognition is a shockingly specific skill set that has evolved over hundreds millions of years, involving the parsing of the photo into many tiny recognizable factors: lines, curves, corners, colors, shades, negative space. These thousand pictorial elements make up everyday objects that people recognize below the conscious level, immediately allowing them to identify a square that either does or does not contain part of a car.
Machines do not have this ability. While their computational power is orders of magnitude higher than humans’, their basic emotional, social and sensory abilities are undeveloped. But in the not-so-distant future, they will have these abilities. All thanks to the work of artificial intelligence experts.
What Does an Artificial Intelligence Expert Do?
Artificial intelligence (AI), according to a quote from the Brookings Institute, “machines that respond to stimulation consistent with traditional responses from humans, given the human capacity for contemplation, judgment, and intention.” If these machines can “make decisions which normally require [a] human level of expertise,” then they meet the test of artificial intelligence.
That doesn’t answer the question, however, of what someone in the artificial intelligence field does. The answer is not simple, including as it does such a wealth of potential activities and duties across different roles and responsibilities, as well as everyday variation on the job. Typical duties may include:
- Designing algorithms that can make complex decisions at the human level
- Combining sensor data with these decision-making algorithms to produce useful technology, suc has self-braking cars
- Helping machines learn emotional responses and communicate effectively with humans
- Working to increase processing speed and analytical sophistication
- Applying machine learning to marketing, finance, intelligence gathering and more
- Working to establish security protocols that will prevent intelligent machine takeover one day
Why Should You Get an Artificial Intelligence Degree?
The last niche in artificial intelligence, while it sounds like a Hollywood plotline (think Terminator or The Matrix), is a very real concern for experts in the industry. In fact, noted physicist Stephen Hawking specifically warned about this before his death.
“The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race,” he told the BBC. “It would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded.”
As such, graduates with degrees in artificial intelligence are not only in-demand for their innovative skills and the human interest in the beneficial power of intelligent software, but also because humanity desperately needs to develop safeguards to prevent such a future.
Other reasons to get an artificial intelligence degree include:
- Excellent salary and job prospects (see Career Outlook)
- Competitive job packages due to the relatively limited availability of experts in these fields
- The ability to make a difference in the fields of education, medicine and science
- Available jobs in the private and public sector, as well as nongovernmental organizations
- Cutting-edge and challenging work
So what exactly does such a degree qualify one to do?
What Can You Do with a Degree in an Artificial Intelligence?
Those who graduate with a degree in artificial intelligence can work in a huge range of environments. Many work in machine learning or software development labs, helping to expand human understanding of artificial intelligence as well as the precision of such technologies.
Others work with robots. It’s important to clarify that robotics and artificial intelligence are two separate fields. While many people confuse the two, they have distinct differences and merely overlap. Robotiq defines robots as “programmable machines which are usually able to carry out a series of actions autonomously, or semi-autonomously.” They interact with their environments through sensors and have the ability to move. Compare that to the above definition of AI, which centers on the ability of machines to make decisions at the human level. Obviously, though, the two may be combined, which is one direction an AI expert might take.
Others work to solve problems that humans have, but take different approaches than humans might take. Or they may explore the psychology of created intelligence, work on the code to develop algorithms and software in the first place, or specialize in a specific machine learning niche: vision, language, movement, etc.
What Are the Course Requirements for an Artificial Intelligence Degree?
First, it’s important to clarify that most artificial intelligence degrees are actually interest areas within computer science. While some universities do offer AI-specific degrees, most don’t. As such, people who want to work in the field should apply to computer science programs either at the master’s or bachelor’s level (though be warned, the latter does not give the same type of access to opportunity).
People at the bachelor’s level need only meet the basic requirements of any undergraduate. Those going for a master’s degree, however, will likely need to have completed prerequisites in the following areas:
- Linear algebra and calculus
- Discrete mathematics
- Programming and computer systems
- Data structure
- Physics or other science classes
- Specific coding languages
… and others, depending on the exact program to which the prospective student is applying.
What Are the Requirements for Application to an Artificial Intelligence Degree Program?
To apply for a computer science program, students must:
- Fill out the school’s official application
- Furnish transcripts of all past schools attended with proof of prerequisites completed
- Complete standardized tests, usually the GRE and the TOEFL for international students
- Submit letters of recommendation, from one to three
- Complete an essay or statement of purpose
Again, the program to which the student is applying may ask for additional components. Always read the application very carefully well ahead of time, in case obtaining these components takes time. Moreover, it’s important to keep oneself apprised of specific deadlines, for scholarships as well as the degree itself.
What Is a Standard Artificial Intelligence Curriculum?
Most artificial intelligence curricula are actually focus areas or tracks within the field of computer science. As such, most students will focus on more general CS topics as well as more specific AI subjects. These could include:
- Algorithms and Data Structures for Applications
- Applied Machine Learning
- Data Science
- Natural Language Processing
- Knowledge Representation
- Deep Learning Foundations
- Human-Computer Interaction
- Computer Vision
- Conversational Interfaces
What’s the Career Outlook for Artificial Intelligence Graduates?
The career outlook for those who have a degree in computer science generally or artificial intelligence specifically is very good. For one thing, people in this field make impressive salaries. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, professionals make on average $114,520 per year or $55.06 per hour. This is an average, which means that those who stay in the field for decades can make considerably more.
Moreover, the number of jobs is growing at a rate much faster than usual, expected to increase 19 percent between 2016 and 2026. That translates to an additional 5,400 jobs in that time. Given the relatively few number of candidates graduating with AI degrees, those who do will have no trouble getting hired at an establishment of their choice.
Additional Resources for Artificial Intelligence Candidates
Those hoping to gain entrance to an artificial intelligence program, or who have already been accepted into a program and want to prepare themselves for their coming careers, need good resources on their side. At the beginning, students can use these resources to focus on basic definitions and skills. Later on, they’re useful for digging deep into the knowledge and skills required to succeed in the program.
- Google’s Machine Learning Page: The tech giant offers an excellent overview of many aspects of AI and machine learning, offering interactive neural networks, showcases of simple AI experiments and explorations of ethical issues.
- Elsevier AI Resource Center: Definitions, key findings, graphics and links provide a deeper understanding of what AI is and how humans can help advance the field.
- KDNuggets: The leading newsletter on AI and machine learning offers a comprehensive roundup of resources related to the field.
- University of California-Berkeley: A full free introductory course from Berkeley, walking students through the basics of AI, including video and written lectures, handouts, homework and student’s guide.
Beyond that, students should rely on coursework in their specific program to educate them about the field. For those not yet in a program, feel free to speak with a representative at the university of interest to learn more about becoming a good candidate, or reach out with questions here.