Artificial intelligence (AI) is being pegged as the new electricity, a technology that could end up transforming almost every element of human endeavour. It is just that, for now, the jury is out on whether it would be for the best or worst. That is because some of the scenarios possible here, with machines learning enough for their artificial intelligence to unyoke from their human-engineered, data-driven origins, could end up having apocalyptical results, or so we believe. But the obvious positives are driving almost every big tech company to go down this part.
Everyone from Apple to Google and Microsoft are already knee-deep into this new field, so much so that all of us regular consumers too are using AI on a daily basis, even though we don’t really realise it. For instance, I have, of late, been using an email client called Trove on the iPhone. The AI-based app knows which all mails are important to me and starts giving lesser importance to the mails I usually ignore. This filtering gets better over time, making email triage swift. There is even a tab of mails which is asking you a direct question and needs response soon. And as with most apps based on AI and making use of machine learning, this technology just gets better over time.
Even as Apple prepares for the consumer launch of iOS 11, which will draw on AI in many ways, almost all Google products, from Google Assistant to mail and search, are already integrating this technology seamlessly, improving user experience on a daily basis. But there is one app that I found hard to ignore: ‘Seeing AI’ from Microsoft. This app is pretty much like a human eye. It can see and identify things. I switched it on in a meeting as it could identify that the scene had a bunch of people of around a table, once at dinner, it said we were at a restaurant. And this app is no one-trick, input-output analysis, pony. It has a short text feature which can read almost all forms of printed text, which had me thinking. I know my grandmother, whose eyesight has prevented her from reading the newspaper for a few years now, would love this app on her phone. And that is just the start of what AI can do … the possibilities are endless.
Leading AI expert and Coursera’s co-founder Andrew Ng, who is the one to compare AI to electricity, believes the field has the potential to change our lives significantly. “It will help in many ways from better diagnosis of diseases to personalised education. There won’t be any industry that AI will not transform,” he said over a video call. He told me that the barrier to entry for AI is lowering for most people. “Compared to a decade ago, today you have relatively simple learning algorithms and much more reliance on data,” he said. Andrew, who has just launched an online course on deep learning, explained that the AI system is basically two sources of knowledge: “How much humans engineer into the system and how much the system learns from data. But over the last decade or so, the lines of code needed to build a new vision system or natural language processing (NLP) system has been falling, while the data you feed to it has been growing.”
While large tech companies have already taken AI to the next level, the real transformation on the ground will happen only once this expertise trickles down to smaller companies, groups and geographies. But will AI cost jobs? Andrew says the problem is not whether we will run out of jobs for humans to do, but whether we are able to re-skill the people, whose jobs are displaced, to do jobs where resources are still lacking.
But the one question that has been worrying everyone is whether this technology, which can evolve on its own, could end up turning rogue? To that effect, would it be a good idea to pass on this knowledge to more people? Andrew says the idea is to make the knowledge more systematic, which it is not at the moment, as this is still a very new segment. “Even electricity was used for bad things. Yes, this is a very powerful tool, and allows small groups of people to do things which they could not otherwise do. But I think most people will use it only for a positive outcome.”