Artificial Intelligence is not a subject just of intelligence in robots and such. It is the title of a subject that involved in understanding human (and other) intelligences.
Where do your thoughts come from? Do you know? I'm sure you can track your thoughts at some level to a certain extant, but I don't think you can feel the manipulation that goes on to add one and one to get two. Using radioactive dyes and various medical imaging, we can watch as a thought forms, and identify the areas within the brain where these processes go on. Unfortunately, knowing where things happen doesn't help us figure out what's happening as much as we'd like it to.
Enter the field of cognitive science, a blend of psychology, neuroscience, and computer science. Its most prominent researchers work towards a Theory of Mind. Its less flashy and more practical researchers work towards a machine that can play piano, or perhaps make a good natural language processor. What use is this? We shall see.
Gerhard Widmer has developed a group of programs that can learn to play the piano based on input describing a human player's performance and the actual score. It learns this by comparing certain parts of each, and figuring out a rule to apply to this. It also figures out how strong this rule is, based on the number of times that particular aspect is used. Right now, Widmer only has access to one pianist's performance of a handfull of sonatas by Mozart. He hopes to one day help teach his programs to play jazz. (Blashill, 2001)
So what? Well, in the article, Widmer gave his learning program a musical score that it hadn't been trained on. He then played for Blashill the same pianist playing that piece, then the program's interpretation of it. Blashill reported that "It sounds almost identical to [the pianist's]. If anything, the computer-generated version comes off a little, well, sadder."(Blashill, 2001)
What is this? A computer's performance instilling emotion in those that observe it? In one of my English classes, we argued about what makes art Art. The best we could come up with was something that caused a reaction in the person observing it, whether good or bad. What this program had done was, using two rules no less, take a dead and somewhat boring MIDI representation of a sonata, and create something that touched a human soul.
This research can eventually be used to generalize a few rules for playing Mozart. Or perhaps it could be used to teach new artists, perhaps some looking for another technique. Maybe someone will try some rules from a classical musician's performances in a Jazz improvisation. Consciously.
That is what AI research is for. To figure out what the hell we are doing. Otherwise, we learn these "skills" and apply them to others, and still have no clue when or why our next advance may come.
Of course, what people are more interested in is the commercialization they can do. How they can make something tangible in order to make money. Sure, you can use these techniques to raise an AI salesentity, and make someone feel better about shopping in your store. You might use an AI versed in criminology and human language to examine court records, searching for "lies" or maybe just contradictions; maybe you'd use it to find a plausible precident for your current case.
For some, pure research is not enough, human understanding isn't enough. It's sad, but it usually ends up being those people who fund that research. We just have to pick up our fundimental truths where we can find them, I guess.
Oh, and don't get in an argument about this with someone who know what they're talking about. You will lose, and you will probably keep arguing. I've seen it happen, and it's not pretty. You've been warned.
Blashill, Pat. "The Creative Processor" Wired, 9.09 (September 2001). pp. 100-112
Various readings by Marvin Minsky, not cited but including "Why People Think Computers Can't", "Music, Mind, and Meaning", and Society of Mind.