The past 30 years have seen incredible growth and innovation in the tech industry. We’ve gone from pocket calculators and PCs to pocket computers more powerful than the mammoth mainframe computers of the 1980s. The Atari 800XL computer I used in high school to develop games was powered by a microprocessor with 3,500 transistors – the one running my iPhone today has 2 billion transistors. The cost of a gigabyte of storage was in the range of $100,000 and the size of a refrigerator. Today, it’s basically free and size is measured in millimetres.
This is incredible progress, and today the pace of technology change is moving even faster. The entire planet of people and things is becoming connected. Five billion people have access to a mobile device, and more than 3 billion of the world’s citizens can instantly connect with almost anyone around the world via the internet. In the next few years, 50 billion things – everything from light bulbs and refrigerators to roads and clothing – will be connected to the internet.
The next tech revolution: AI
Every generation or so, a number of emerging technologies converge, and something revolutionary occurs. Over the past decade, a maturing internet, increasing bandwidth, compressing costs and Apple's now iconic iPhone paved the way for companies like Uber, Airbnb, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter to upend industries and redefine the mobile customer experience for billions of users. We are on the cusp of one of those disruptive shifts again. For the first time, artificial intelligence (AI) is moving into the mainstream, and thanks to the convergence of increasing computing power, big data and machine learning, it’s reshaping the world we live in and our relationships with technology and each other.
Following Einstein’s dictum – the definition of genius is taking the complex and making it simple – AI is about reducing complexity and embedding machine intelligence in many aspects of our lives. As it evolves, AI will become a defining technology of the 21st century, just as the microprocessor was in the 20th century.
As consumers we already experience AI as an integral part of our daily lives. Google uses machine learning to autocomplete search queries, predicting what you are looking for with great accuracy. Facebook news feeds and Amazon product recommendations are targeted just for you via machine learning algorithms. And self-driving cars apply various AI techniques to avoid collisions and traffic congestion. AI has become a worthy game player, teaching itself how to play the complex, ancient board game Go, and beating the best human player in the world.
Today, every company faces an intelligence imperative – to harness the power of AI and integrate it into its products and services. Every company wants to be as smart as Uber in using networks and data to deliver intelligent customer experiences and make smarter business decisions. The generations who have grown up digitally now expect companies to anticipate their needs and provide instant, even personalized responses at every touchpoint, across every device.
But AI has largely been out of reach for the majority of businesses due to the cost and complexity of delivering intelligence in apps. Most business decisions today are made based more on instinct than data – just a small percent of the business data available is used to inform decision making. In addition, infusing apps with AI has historically required highly skilled data scientists.
But over the next few years, AI in the cloud promises to democratize intelligence, potentially making every company and every employee smarter, faster and more productive. Machine learning algorithms can analyse billions of signals to determine which customers are most likely to purchase a particular product or automatically escalate and route customer service calls to the most appropriate agent. From online to in-store, the shopping experience is being transformed by AI. More than 90% of shopping is still done in brick-and-mortar stores today. But soon every customer who walks into a store will be able to interact with a chatbot knowing all of their shopping history, preferences and other relevant information to make recommendations, offer special discounts and handle customer service issues.
Advances in deep learning, a branch of AI modelled after the brain’s neural network, will enable intelligent digital assistants to help plan vacations with the acumen of a human assistant, or determine sentiment for a particular brand by analysing millions of signals from social networks and other data sources. In healthcare, deep learning algorithms can learn to identify types of cancer cells or intracranial abnormalities, providing doctors access to the most accurate diagnostic tool, from anywhere in the world in real time.
We need a trust revolution
Deploying AI will require a kind of reboot in the way companies think about privacy and security. AI is fueled by data. The more the machine learns about you, the better it can predict your needs and act on your behalf. But as data becomes the currency of our digital lives, companies must ensure the privacy and security of customer information. And, there is no trust without transparency – companies must give customers clarity on how their personal data is used. It turns out that the capability of AI to detect and remedy security breaches plays a critical role in protecting user privacy and building trust.
AI is going to unleash a whole new level of productivity and augment our lives in many ways. As in past industrial revolutions, AI will also be a disruptive force, dislocating people from jobs and surfacing profound existential questions about the relationship between man and machine. It’s inevitable that jobs will be impacted as AI automates a variety of tasks, but just as the internet did 20 years ago, the AI revolution will transform many jobs as well as spawn new kinds of jobs that drive economic growth. As a society, we need to adapt to the changing nature of work by focusing on training people for the jobs of tomorrow and addressing growing economic inequality.
AI is still a very long way from surpassing human intelligence. It’s taken 60 years from the time the term artificial intelligence was first introduced by John McCarthy at a conference at Dartmouth College for computers to detect cats in YouTube videos or tell you the best route and time required to arrive at the airport two hours before a flight.
But we can count on technological innovation to continue at an even more rapid pace than what we’ve seen with previous generations. AI will become like electrical current – invisible and augmenting almost every part of our lives. Thirty years from now we’ll wonder how we ever got along without our telepathic digital assistants, just as we can’t imagine life today without checking our smartphones a dozen times each hour.