Artificial Intelligence – specifically machine learning and deep learning – was everywhere in 2018 and don’t expect the hype to die down over the next 12 months.
The hype will die eventually of course, and AI will become another consistent thread in the tapestry of our lives, just like the internet, electricity, and combustion did in days of yore.
But for at least the next year, and probably longer, expect astonishing breakthroughs as well as continued excitement and hyperbole from commentators.
This is because expectations of the changes to business and society which AI promises (or in some cases threatens) to bring about go beyond anything dreamed up during previous technological revolutions.
AI points towards a future where machines not only do all of the physical work, as they have done since the industrial revolution but also the “thinking” work – planning, strategizing and making decisions.
The jury’s still out on whether this will lead to a glorious utopia, with humans free to spend their lives following more meaningful pursuits, rather than on those which economic necessity dictates they dedicate their time, or to widespread unemployment and social unrest.
We probably won’t arrive at either of those outcomes in 2019, but it’s a topic which will continue to be hotly debated. In the meantime, here are five things that we can expect to happen:
1.AI increasingly becomes a matter of international politics
2018 has seen major world powers increasingly putting up fences to protect their national interests when it comes to trade and defence. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the relationship between the world’s two AI superpowers, the US and China.
In the face of tariffs and export restrictions on goods and services used to create AI imposed by the US Government, China has stepped up its efforts to become self-reliant when it comes to research and development.
Chinese tech manufacturer Huawei announced plans to develop its own AI processing chips, reducing the need for the country’s booming AI industry to rely on US manufacturers like Intel and Nvidia.
At the same time, Google has faced public criticism for its apparent willingness to do business with Chinese tech companies (many with links to the Chinese government) while withdrawing (after pressure from its employees) from arrangements to work with US government agencies due to concerns its tech may be militarised.
With nationalist politics enjoying a resurgence, there are two apparent dangers here.
Firstly, that artificial intelligence technology could be increasingly adopted by authoritarian regimes to restrict freedoms, such as the rights to privacy or free speech.
Secondly, that these tensions could compromise the spirit of cooperation between academic and industrial organisations across the world. This framework of open collaboration has been instrumental to the rapid development and deployment of AI technology we see taking place today and putting up borders around a nation’s AI development is likely to slow that progress. In particular, it is expected to slow the development of common standards around AI and data, which could greatly increase the usefulness of AI.
2. A Move Towards “Transparent AI”
The adoption of AI across wider society – particularly when it involves dealing with human data – is hindered by the “black box problem.” Mostly, its workings seem arcane and unfathomable without a thorough understanding of what it’s actually doing.
To achieve its full potential AI needs to be trusted – we need to know what it is doing with our data, why, and how it makes its decisions when it comes to issues that affect our lives. This is often difficult to convey – particularly as what makes AI particularly useful is its ability to draw connexions and make inferences which may not be obvious or may even seem counter-intuitive to us.
But building trust in AI systems isn’t just about reassuring the public. Research and business will also benefit from openness which exposes bias in data or algorithms. Reports have even found that companies are sometimes holding back from deploying AI due to fears they may face liabilities in the future if current technology is later judged to be unfair or unethical.
In 2019 we’re likely to see an increased emphasis on measures designed to increase the transparency of AI. This year IBM unveiled technology developed to improve the traceability of decisions into its AI OpenScale technology. This concept gives real-time insights into not only what decisions are being made, but how they are being made, drawing connexions between data that is used, decision weighting and potential for bias in information.
The General Data Protection Regulation, put into action across Europe this year, gives citizens some protection against decisions which have “legal or other significant” impact on their lives made solely by machines. While it isn’t yet a blisteringly hot political potato, its prominence in public discourse is likely to grow during 2019, further encouraging businesses to work towards transparency.
3. AI and automation drilling deeper into every business
In 2018, companies began to get a firmer grip on the realities of what AI can and can’t do. After spending the previous few years getting their data in order and identifying areas where AI could bring quick rewards, or fail fast, big business is as a whole ready to move ahead with proven initiatives, moving from piloting and soft-launching to global deployment.
In financial services, vast real-time logs of thousands of transactions per second are routinely parsed by machine learning algorithms. Retailers are proficient at grabbing data through till receipts and loyalty programmes and feeding it into AI engines to work out how to get better at selling us things. Manufacturers use predictive technology to know precisely what stresses machinery can be put under and when it is likely to break down or fail.
In 2019 we’ll see growing confidence that this smart, predictive technology, bolstered by learnings it has picked up in its initial deployments, can be rolled out wholesale across all of a business’s operations.
AI will branch out into support functions such as HR or optimising supply chains, where decisions around logistics, as well as hiring and firing, will become increasingly informed by automation. AI solutions for managing compliance and legal issues are also likely to be increasingly adopted. As these tools will often be fit-for-purpose across a number of organisations, they will increasingly be offered as-a-service, offering smaller businesses a bite of the AI cherry, too.
We’re also likely to see an increase in businesses using their data to generate new revenue streams. Building up big databases of transactions and customer activity within its industry essentially lets any sufficiently data-savvy business begin to “Googlify” itself. Becoming a source of data-as-a-service has been transformational for businesses such as John Deere, which offers analytics based on agricultural data to help farmers grow crops more efficiently. In 2019 more companies will adopt this strategy as they come to understand the value of the information they own.
4. More jobs will be created by AI than will be lost to it.
As I mentioned in my introduction to this post, in the long-term its uncertain if the rise of the machines will lead to human unemployment and social strife, a utopian workless future, or (probably more realistically) something in between.
For the next year, at least, though, it seems it isn’t going to be immediately problematic in this regard. Gartner predicts that by the end of 2019, AI will be creating more jobs than it is taking.
While 1.8 million jobs will be lost to automation – with manufacturing in particular singled out as likely to take a hit – 2.3 million will be created. In particular, Gartner’s report finds, these could be focused on education, healthcare, and the public sector.
A likely driver for this disparity is the emphasis placed on rolling out AI in an “augmenting” capacity when it comes to deploying it in non-manual jobs. Warehouse workers and retail cashiers have often been replaced wholesale by automated technology. But when it comes to doctors and lawyers, AI service providers have made concerted effort to present their technology as something which can work alongside human professionals, assisting them with repetitive tasks while leaving the “final say” to them.
This means those industries benefit from the growth in human jobs on the technical side – those needed to deploy the technology and train the workforce on using it – while retaining the professionals who carry out the actual work.
For the financial services, the outlook is perhaps slightly grimmer. Some estimates, such as those made by former Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit in 2017, predict that the sector’s human workforce could be 30% smaller within five years. With back-office functions increasingly being managed by machines, we could be well on our way to seeing that come true by the end of next year.
5. AI assistants will become truly useful
AI is genuinely interwoven into our lives now, to the point that most people don’t give a second thought to the fact that when they search Google, shop at Amazon or watch Netflix, highly precise, AI-driven predictions are at work to make the experience flow.
A slightly more apparent sense of engagement with robotic intelligence comes about when we interact with AI assistants – Siri, Alexa, or Google Assistant, for example – to help us make sense of the myriad of data sources available to us in the modern world.
In 2019, more of us than ever will use an AI assistant to arrange our calendars, plan our journeys and order a pizza. These services will become increasingly useful as they learn to anticipate our behaviours better and understand our habits.
Data gathered from users allows application designers to understand exactly which features are providing value, and which are underused, perhaps consuming valuable resources (through bandwidth or reporting) which could be better used elsewhere.
As a result, functions which we do want to use AI for – such as ordering taxis and food deliveries, and choosing restaurants to visit – are becoming increasingly streamlined and accessible.
On top of this, AI assistants are designed to become increasingly efficient at understanding their human users, as the natural language algorithms used to encode speech into computer-readable data, and vice versa is exposed to more and more information about how we communicate.
It’s evident that conversations between Alexa or Google Assistant and us can seem very stilted today. However, the rapid acceleration of understanding in this field means that, by the end of 2019, we will be getting used to far more natural and flowing discourse with the machines we share our lives with.