AI Doesn’t Understand Much—But Maybe A Little

Sam Brinson
9 min readJun 20, 2022


In only the last few months, we’ve seen a number of developments in artificial intelligence making headlines:

  • OpenAI’s DALLE-2 can generate incredible images from simple text prompts.
  • Google’s PaLM appears to reason and solve problems.
  • DeepMind’s Gato tackles a range of tasks and could be an example of general AI.

Each has added fuel to the growing number of debates around the current and near-future capabilities of AI.

Some are singing the praises of deep learning (the layered neural network approach which most modern AI is based on), claiming we only need to scale these models up for us to reach the heights of super intelligent AI. Others argue there is still something fundamentally missing.

Then there’s those like Google engineer Blake Lemoine, who have become so enamoured with what’s happening to consider if AI is already sentient.

The new programs are good enough that they’re certain to impact how people create and interact with computers, but do DALLE-2, PaLM, Gato, or any other current manifestations of AI, know what they’re doing?

What Does it Mean to Understand?

There’s a scene in the Big Bang Theory where the car the group of scientists are in breaks down. Leonard asks if anyone knows anything about internal combustion engines, and everyone says yes, of course they do, it’s 19th-century technology. When Leonard follows up by asking if anyone knows how to fix an internal combustion engine — no, not a clue.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that people have different interpretations of what understanding is. We use it in place of knowledge, intelligence, thinking, experience, and awareness.

You can understand what something is, how to do something, how something works, the where’s, when’s, and why’s. You might understand Spanish, how to make coffee, the rules of basketball, why someone reacted the way they did, and what might have been had you asked the girl out.

Understanding isn’t all-or-nothing. Some people understand things a bit better than others. Some claim to understand the basics of how a helicopter works, but get stumped when asked…



Sam Brinson

An emergent property of billions of chaotically firing neurons. Currently thinking about thinking.