Powered by unprecedented levels of data, AI is changing our lives like never before

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Published: January 22, 2019 1:20:00 AM

Access to big data will give us insights about health. For example, Fitbit could have huge amounts of data on sleep patterns.

Powered by unprecedented levels of data, AI is changing our lives like never before

We are all slaves of technology, striving hard to keep up with the gadgets that govern us. But other than make our lives complex, despite all the conveniences they shower on us, what can technology really do? I’m sure a lot of us have asked ourselves this question as we looked back at the simple times of the past. But technology could well be on the threshold of changing our lives drastically, as electricity did well over a century ago.

I did not use the comparison with electricity in vain. In fact, artificial intelligence (AI) has often been called the “new electricity” because it is soon going to be all-pervasive and omnipresent. While AI itself is not new and is a buzzword that has been buzzed at us for many years now, it is only now that it has started changing lives at an unprecedented scale.

Microsoft India president Anant Maheshwari puts it in simple terms. Never before, he says, have we had a convergence of data, cloud technologies and analytics tools at this scale, bringing down the cost of predicting anything. This power is literally in the hands of everyone. “But when we all start asking what we would like to predict,” Maheshwari says, “the possibilities of this technology really start to explode.”

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Across the world, people are asking what AI can do for us? Take the case of disabilities. AI-driven technologies can now help a visually challenged person do everything from walk into a mall for a regular shopping errand to develop software. Microsoft’s Seeing AI app, available as a free download for smartphones, can recognise everything from text on a document to signages and even scenarios, acting as an artificial eye for those who cannot see. The Soundscape app, meanwhile, gives uses stereophonic or 360-degree spatial audio to decipher digital maps and tell the user what is around him. There is a $100 add-on that can activate gaze tracking on any screen to help those who cannot move their hands. It has even developed hardware to bring Xbox gaming for those who otherwise cannot play.

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Elsewhere, while Apple’s AI-driven ARKit can look at and tell you if a piece of baggage is cabin size or not, Microsoft’s AI tech harnessing the power of Azure is helping Germany’s Welthungerhilfe detect undernourishment in Indian children with just the camera.

“A lot of innovation around cloud and AI is possible because of scale; because we have huge amounts of data,” explains Sriram Rajamani, MD, Microsoft Research’s India Lab. A lot of these innovations come from his team of researchers. One of their achievements has been to bring this level of computing on microcomputers, changing the paradigm on what is possible at a local level.

Almost all these innovations are possible because there is access to so much data. But the large datasets needed to train systems to predict are not that easy to come by. In 2016, IBM bought The Weather Company primarily because it gave it access to the kind of data that was not available at that point. “Weather brings a lot of data, variety, velocity, variability and it becomes a good feed for non-structured and structured data to come together and create decision capabilities. In a way, it was a good fit for Watson (IBM’s supercomputer),” says Himanshu Goyal, India Business Leader, The Weather Company. This combination helped consumers and companies make better personal and professional decisions, from planning flights to management based on the expected weather conditions. In India, many start-ups are using this data to give better and actionable information to farmers, Goyal adds. He says one of the company’s patterns is helping pomegranate farmers decide when to irrigate, how much to irrigate, which pesticides to use, etc. For the average consumer, this means The Weather Channel app can now give everything from a sweat index to a mosquito infestation index, and not just temperature or humidity that we are used to.

The access to this level of big data will gradually give the kind of insight we have never had, especially about human health. A company like Fitbit could have unprecedented data on sleep patterns, while the Apple Watch could have never before collated data on wheelchair users. With analytics tools applied, this data could be what makes us healthier in the near future. AI is finally becoming a boon for humans.

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