AI Explainer: What Are Neural Networks?

AI Explainer: What Are Neural Networks?

In a previous blog post, which was a glossary of terms related to artificial intelligence, I included this brief definition of "neural networks":

Neural Networks: Computational models inspired by the human brain's structure, consisting of interconnected layers of artificial neurons to process and analyze data.

Let’s go a bit deeper on that. Neural networks are a class of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning models inspired by the structure and functioning of the human brain. They are a subset of AI techniques that have gained significant popularity due to their ability to learn and make decisions from data. So, neural networks are a subset of machine learning, which is a subset of the broader field of artificial intelligence.

How Neural Networks Work

How do they actually work? Neural networks consist of interconnected nodes, or artificial neurons, organized into layers that process and transform input data into meaningful output. The core concept is to use these artificial neurons to model and solve complex problems, such as image recognition, natural language processing and more.

Neural networks are different from other types of artificial intelligence in several ways:

  1. Inspiration From Biology: Neural networks are inspired by the structure and functioning of biological brains. They use interconnected artificial neurons to process and learn from data, allowing them to adapt and generalize to various tasks. Other AI techniques may not be inspired by biological systems.
  2. Learning From Data: Neural networks are primarily data-driven models. They learn by adjusting the connections between neurons based on examples provided during training. This ability to learn from data is a key feature that distinguishes them from rule-based or expert systems, which rely on predefined rules.
  3. Deep Learning: Neural networks can be deep, containing many layers (deep learning models). This architecture allows them to capture complex patterns and hierarchies in data, making them suitable for tasks like image recognition, speech recognition and natural language understanding. Deep learning is a subfield of neural networks that has become particularly prominent in recent years.
  4. Generalization: Neural networks are designed to generalize from the data they are trained on. This means they can make predictions on new, unseen data that shares similarities with the training data. Many other AI techniques, such as rule-based systems, may not generalize as effectively.
  5. Flexibility: Neural networks are highly versatile and can be applied to a wide range of tasks. They can handle tasks like classification, regression, clustering and generation. This adaptability is a significant advantage in AI research and applications.
  6. Black Box Nature: Neural networks, especially deep neural networks, are often considered "black boxes" because the reasoning behind their decisions can be challenging to interpret. Other AI approaches, like decision trees or rule-based systems, tend to be more transparent and interpretable.
  7. Scalability: Neural networks can scale with the amount of data and computational resources. They have demonstrated remarkable performance in large-scale applications such as image and speech recognition. Other AI techniques may not scale as effectively.

In summary, neural networks are a specific subset of AI techniques that are data-driven, inspired by biology, capable of deep learning, and versatile in solving a wide range of problems. They have made significant contributions to the field of AI and have revolutionized areas like computer vision, natural language processing and more. However, they are not always the best choice for every AI problem, and the choice of AI technique should depend on the specific requirements of the task at hand.

Distinctions Between Neural Networks & Generative AI

Still want some more clarity on how the different areas of AI are related to each other? Let’s take one more step and compare neural networks to generative AI.

Neural networks and generative AI are related concepts, but they represent different aspects within the field of artificial intelligence. Let's explore the distinctions between the two:

  • Definition & Scope:
    • Neural Networks: As stated above, neural networks are a class of algorithms inspired by the structure and functioning of the human brain. Neural networks are a broad category that includes various architectures and designs, such as feedforward neural networks and recurrent neural networks.
    • Generative AI: Generative AI, on the other hand, refers to a broader concept involving AI systems that are capable of generating new content. This content can take various forms, such as images, text, audio or even video. While neural networks, especially certain types like generative adversarial networks (GANs), can be used for generative tasks, generative AI encompasses a wider range of techniques and models.
  • Function:
    • Neural Networks: Neural networks serve various functions, including classification, regression and pattern recognition. While some neural networks, like GANs and variational autoencoders (VAEs), have a generative aspect, the primary function of neural networks is not limited to generation.
    • Generative AI: Generative AI focuses specifically on the creation of new, synthetic content. This content can be generated based on patterns learned from existing data during training.
  • Applications
    • Neural Networks: Neural networks find applications in a wide range of tasks, including image and speech recognition, natural language processing and decision-making. Their applications extend beyond generative tasks.
    • Generative AI: Generative AI is explicitly designed for content generation. This includes creating realistic images, generating text, composing music and other creative tasks.
  • Models & Techniques:
    • Neural Networks: Neural networks include a variety of architectures and models, such as feedforward neural networks, convolutional neural networks, recurrent neural networks, and transformers. These models can be used for both discriminative and generative tasks.
    • Generative AI: Generative AI includes models and techniques specifically designed for generating new content. Examples include GANs, VAEs, autoregressive models, and other models tailored for generative tasks.

So while neural networks are a broad category of algorithms used for various tasks, including but not limited to generation, generative AI specifically focuses on the creation of new content. Neural networks, especially certain architectures like GANs, can be a crucial component of generative AI systems, but generative AI includes other techniques and models dedicated to creative content generation. In this case, one is not really a subset of the other — neural networks can be used for generative AI, but they can also be used for tasks beyond generative ones.

I hope you found this helpful. Please subscribe to the blog (at the top, on the right) to get more posts in the AI Explainer series.



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