Artificial Intelligence (AI) has undoubtedly been the technology storey of the 2010s, and it doesn’t look like the excitement is going to wear off as a new decade dawns.
The past decade will be remembered as the time when machines that can truly be thought of as “intelligent” – as in capable of thinking, and learning, like we do – started to become a reality outside of science fiction.
While no prediction engine has yet been built that can plot the course of AI over the coming decade, we can be fairly certain about what might happen over the next year. Spending on research, development, and deployment continues to rise, and debate over the wider social implications rages on. Meanwhile, the incentives only get bigger for those looking to roll out AI-driven innovation into new areas of industry, fields of science, and our day-to-day lives.
Here are my predictions for what we’re likely to see continue or emerge in the first year of the 2020s.
1. AI will increasingly be monitoring and refining business processes
While the first robots in the workplace were mainly involved with automating manual tasks such as manufacturing and production lines, today’s software-based robots will take on the repetitive but necessary work that we carry out on computers. Filling in forms, generating reports and diagrams and producing documentation and instructions are all tasks that can be automated by machines that watch what we do and learn to do it for us in a quicker and more streamlined manner. This automation – known as robotic process automation – will free us from the drudgery of time-consuming but essential administrative work, leaving us to spend more time on complex, strategic, creative and interpersonal tasks.
2. More and more personalization will take place in real-time
This trend is driven by the success of internet giants like Amazon, Alibaba, and Google, and their ability to deliver personalised experiences and recommendations. AI allows providers of goods and services to quickly and accurately project a 360-degree view of customers in real-time as they interact through online portals and mobile apps, quickly learning how their predictions can fit our wants and needs with ever-increasing accuracy. Just as pizza delivery companies like Dominos will learn when we are most likely to want pizza, and make sure the “Order Now” button is in front of us at the right time, every other industry will roll out solutions aimed at offering personalised customer experiences at scale.
3. AI becomes increasingly useful as data becomes more accurate and available
The quality of information available is often a barrier to businesses and organisations wanting to move towards AI-driven automated decision-making. But as technology and methods of simulating real-world processes and mechanisms in the digital domain have improved over recent years, accurate data has become increasingly available. Simulations have advanced to the stage where car manufacturers and others working on the development of autonomous vehicles can gain thousands of hours of driving data without vehicles even leaving the lab, leading to huge reductions in cost as well as increases in the quality of data that can be gathered. Why risk the expense and danger of testing AI systems in the real world when computers are now powerful enough, and trained on accurate-enough data, to simulate it all in the digital world? 2020 will see an increase in the accuracy and availability of real-world simulations, which in turn will lead to more powerful and accurate AI.
4. More devices will run AI-powered technology
As the hardware and expertise needed to deploy AI become cheaper and more available, we will start to see it used in an increasing number of tools, gadgets, and devices. In 2019 we’re already used to running apps that give us AI-powered predictions on our computers, phones, and watches. As the next decade approaches and the cost of hardware and software continues to fall, AI tools will increasingly be embedded into our vehicles, household appliances, and workplace tools. Augmented by technology such as virtual and augmented reality displays, and paradigms like the cloud and Internet of Things, the next year will see more and more devices of every shape and size starting to think and learn for themselves.
5. Human and AI cooperation increases
More and more of us will get used to the idea of working alongside AI-powered tools and bots in our day-to-day working lives. Increasingly, tools will be built that allow us to make the most of our human skills – those which AI can’t quite manage yet – such as imaginative, design, strategy, and communication skills. While augmenting them with super-fast analytics abilities fed by vast datasets that are updated in real-time.
For many of us, this will mean learning new skills, or at least new ways to use our skills alongside these new robotic and software-based tools. The IDC predicts that by 2025, 75% of organisations will be investing in employee retraining in order to fill skill gaps caused by the need to adopt AI. This trend will become increasingly apparent throughout 2020, to the point where if your employer isn’t investing in AI tools and training, it might be worth considering how well placed they are to grow over the coming years.
6. AI increasingly at the “edge”
Much of the AI we’re used to interacting with now in our day-to-day lives takes place “in the cloud” – when we search on Google or flick through recommendations on Netflix, the complex, data-driven algorithms run on high-powered processors inside remote data centres, with the devices in our hands or on our desktops simply acting as conduits for information to pass through.
Increasingly, however, as these algorithms become more efficient and capable of running on low-power devices, AI is taking place at the “edge, ” close to the point where data is gathered and used. This paradigm will continue to become more popular in 2020 and beyond, making AI-powered insights a reality outside of the times and places where super-fast fibre optic and mobile networks are available. Custom processors designed to carry out real-time analytics on-the-fly will increasingly become part of the technology we interact with day-to-day, and increasingly we will be able to do this even if we have patchy or non-existent internet connexions.
7. AI increasingly used to create films, music, and games
Some things, even in 2020, are probably still best left to humans. Anyone who has seen the current state-of-the-art in AI-generated music, poetry or storytelling is likely to agree that the most sophisticated machines still have some way to go until their output will be as enjoyable to us as the best that humans can produce. However, the influence of AI on entertainment media is likely to increase. This year we saw Robert De Niro de-aged in front of our eyes with the assistance of AI, in Martin Scorsese’s epic The Irishman, and the use of AI in creating brand new visual effects and trickery is likely to become increasingly common.
In videogames, AI will continue to be used to create challenging, human-like opponents for players to compete against, as well as to dynamically adjust gameplay and difficulty so that games can continue to offer a compelling challenge for gamers of all skill levels. And while completely AI-generated music may not be everyone’s cup of tea, where AI does excel is in creating dynamic soundscapes – think of smart playlists on services like Spotify or Google Music that match tunes and tempo to the mood and pace of our everyday lives.
8. AI will become ever more present in cybersecurity
As hacking, phishing and social engineering attacks become ever-more sophisticated, and themselves powered by AI and advanced prediction algorithms, smart technology will play an increasingly important role in protecting us from these attempted intrusions into our lives. AI can be used to spot giveaway signs that digital activity or transactions follow patterns that are likely to be indicators of nefarious activity, and raise alarms before defences can be breached and sensitive data compromised.
The rollout of 5G and other super-fast wireless communications technology will bring huge opportunities for businesses to provide services in new and innovative ways, but they will also potentially open us up to more sophisticated cyber-attacks. Spending on cybersecurity will continue to increase, and those with relevant skills will be highly sought-after.
9. More of us will interact with AI, maybe without even knowing it
Let’s face it, despite the huge investment in recent years in natural-language powered chatbots in customer service, most of us can recognise whether we’re dealing with a robot or a human. However, as the datasets used to train natural language processing algorithms continue to grow, the line between humans and machines will become harder and harder to distinguish. With the advent of deep learning and semi-supervised models of machine learning such as reinforcement learning, the algorithms that attempt to match our speech patterns and infer meaning from our own human language will become more and more able to fool us into thinking there is a human on the other end of the conversation. And while many of us may think we would rather deal with a human when looking for information or assistance, if robots fill their promise of becoming more efficient and accurate at interpreting our questions, that could change. Given the ongoing investment and maturation of the technology powering customer service bots and portals, 2020 could be the first time many of us interact with a robot without even realising it.
10. But AI will recognise us, even if we don’t recognise it
Perhaps even more unsettlingly, the rollout of facial recognition technology is only likely to intensify as we move into the next decade. Not just in China (where the government is looking at ways of making facial recognition compulsory for accessing services like communication networks and public transport) but around the world. Corporations and governments are increasingly investing in these methods of telling who we are and interpreting our activity and behaviour. There’s some pushback against this – this year, San Francisco became the first major city to ban the use of facial recognition technology by the police and municipal agencies, and others are likely to follow in 2020. But the question of whether people will ultimately begin to accept this intrusion into their lives, in return for the increased security and convenience it will bring, is likely to be a hotly debated topic of the next 12 months.