Smart ads, facial recognition, chatbots, human-sounding virtual assistants: Artificial Intelligence is already a part of your life, whether you realise it or not.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is the branch of advanced computer science devoted to problem-solving, learning, data analysis and pattern recognition. It is in use in just about everything you can think of: your phone, your new car, and the special effects in the latest sci-fi or action flick. It’s currently one of the hottest topics in boardrooms around the world, as executives realise the potential cost savings in adopting AI to improve internal processes and analyse data. So it’s fair to say it’s not all about creepy robots (though there are certainly some of those).
Getting smart with Artificial Intelligence
In the main, AI is the concept of machines being capable of carrying out ‘smart’ tasks, much faster than humans can. Machine Learning (ML) is an application of AI, where machines are given access to data and then allowed to learn from there themselves (as opposed to machines being taught by humans), solving real-world problems using ‘neural networks’ designed to mimic human decision-making.
According to former Google CEO, Eric Schmidt: “Technology is now on the cusp of taking us into a magical age, in which machine learning can prevent blindness, translate any language with expert skill, or even save endangered species from extinction. Machine learning is beginning to help us solve problems today that we simply couldn’t solve on our own.”
At a more prosaic level, AI and ML algorithms are typically applied to the task of detecting patterns and drawing conclusions and insights from data – actually, the growing amount of data, and the need to process and analyse it, was a catalyst for the latest developments in AI. Some of the big names in AI are Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon – Amazon even has its own AI Services arm, selling AI and ML tools and services to other businesses.
Amazon is a good example of a company imbued with AI, from its use in software, to the warehouses where AI generates the process of the robot-mounted shelves bringing the products to the (human) packers, saving the need for packers to search for product. Then there’s the new Amazon Go Concept Store, a ‘just walk out’ grocery store that uses cameras, algorithms and weight sensors to determine the items that shoppers select, charging their Amazon-linked account when they leave the store with them. No registers, no queues (except for the queue to enter the store and try it out)! Amazon is also moving into the healthcare field, and the company’s use of AI could result in some mega changes in the way we currently manage disease detection and healthcare delivery.
The economic impact of Artificial Intelligence
A recent report commissioned by Google Australia predicts that AI offers significant advantages to the Australian economy: creating 2.2 trillion in value by 2030 – incorporating benefits such as improved productivity and decision-making, cost savings, and a reduction in workplace accidents. We’ve already seen some of these impacts for industries such as the banking sector, where AI is used to automatically update records in CRM systems, drive self-service portals and chatbots, and predict stock market trends. US bank JP Morgan Chase has even developed a machine learning algorithm that reputedly analysed and extracted important information from 12,000 credit agreements in a couple of seconds – a job that would have taken 360,000 man hours.
At this stage, creating and monitoring AI and ML algorithms still requires human input – and qualified AI researchers are hard to come by. A recent survey conducted by IT firm Infosys found that some three quarters of organisations in Australia plan to develop dedicated AI teams – but that the scarcity of AI qualified researchers was slowing them down. Global job-seeker site Indeed has reported rapid growth in the number of AI-related job posts: they’ve doubled since 2015, while searches for AI and ML jobs by job seekers has tripled.
Employment threats and opportunities
While Artificial Intelligence might create jobs in the tech industry, it’s pegged to cause a huge loss of traditional jobs: some 3 million in Australia, give or take. (You can even check to see if your job is threatened here). Others go so far as to claim that the “rise of robots” will lead to unemployment levels greater than 50%. The Guardian’s economics editor, Larry Elliott, says the potentially large unemployment levels that will result from advancing technology mean that the concept of a Universal Basic Income is an idea whose time may well have come.
But AI is taking jobs that are hard to fill, too. Truck driving, for example, an industry with chronic staff shortages in the USA. But in October 2016 a world-first took place in Colorado, USA: a truck carrying a load of Budweiser beer made the majority of its delivery without a driver at the wheel – at least until it neared its destination, where the driver took over to guide the 18-wheeler the last few miles to the depot. It was the result of years of development from San Francisco startup Otto, which had recently been purchased by Uber. The project has now progressed to the stage that Uber has self-driving trucks delivering on a daily basis in Arizona. At the time of writing, Otto’s rival, Waymo, is reputedly about to start self-driving deliveries in Atlanta. Upshot being: the self-driving vehicle is no longer the stuff of science fiction – it’s a reality coming soon to a highway near you (at least, it is in the good ol’ USA).
‘At this stage, there are still a lot of unknowns with AI, but the industry is abuzz with its potential,’ says Carmen Watts, co-founder of Red Cloud Digital. ‘It could potentially help you manage investments, manage your social media analysis, predict sales and customer trends, and more.’