There is a tendency among (non-technical) admirers of AI and Machine Learning to regard deep learning machines as entities that exist beyond their creators. They (Deep Learning Machines) are, not - in fact independent entities that will one day, having refined enough algorithms and enough energy/processing power, out-comprehend their human creators and overwhelm humanity with their artificial consciousnesses. The term “neural networks” is a misnomer that doesn’t reflect the complexity of how human neurons represent and acquire information; it’s simply a term for nonlinear classification algorithms that began catching on once the computing power to run them emerged.
In other words when computer scientists talk about “neural networks” they’re talking about (ridiculously) fancy statistical regression, not actually mimicking the human brain or conscious.
The question of whether or not deep neural networks are capable of “understanding” is largely a theoretical concern for Computer Scientists. Generally they spend the bulk of their time curating manually labeled data, fine-tuning their neural classifier with methods (or hacks) to increase its accuracy by a few fractions of a percentage point. Ten or twenty years from now, I imagine we’ll be dealing with a novel set of ML tools that will evolve with the rise of quantum computing (the term “machine learning” will probably be ancient history, too), but the essence of these methods will probably remain: to train a mathematical model to perform task X while generalizing its performance to the real world.
As fascinating and exciting as this era of artificial intelligence is, we should also remember that these algorithms are ultimately sophisticated classifiers that don’t “understand” anything on a cognizant level. TLDR: I’m a huge nerd who majored in AI, Machine Learning, & Bioinformatics. So don’t worry, Ex Machina / Skynet isn’t happening. But we’re going to get damn good at recognizing patterns and predicting outcomes. So good in fact, that it might seem like actual intelligence.