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- Ron Karjian, Managing Editor
Like a child trapped in a septuagenarian's body, artificial intelligence presents an odd sort of dichotomy. The technology, or at least the concept, has been around for decades, and while AI technologies have recently gained traction in several niche applications, it's far from achieving mainstream status in consumer and business markets.
Before that can happen, many challenges and hindrances need to be addressed, including seamless human-machine conversations, integration of AI technologies, access to clean data, competition for data scientists and democratization of AI within organizations. "General AI is still quite a ways off," acknowledged Tyler Schulze, vice president of AI platform maker Veritone, during December's AI World Conference in Boston. Machine learning platform maker Kogentix CEO Boyd Davis, who also spoke at the conference, said "most of the statistics you see out there say less than 20% of organizations are using any of these [AI] technologies, and less than 5% are using it to its full potential or even close to its full potential. That's the world we live in."
There are some stats, however, that point to 2018 as a pivotal year, when AI technologies set off on a decade-long march toward world domination. AI software revenue worldwide, currently hovering around a modest $1 billion, will approach $60 billion by 2025, according to data from Tractica, a research firm that focuses on human interaction with technology. And that number will probably continue to be revised upward as AI grows exponentially.
No one can deny that AI's potential benefits to business and society are immense and unlimited. AI may well be big data's great equalizer as companies try to get a handle on their overflowing lakes of incoming unstructured data.
"Almost every industry by 2021 will be AI-led," Tractica research director Aditya Kaul predicted during AI World. Key areas for implementation of AI technologies include image recognition, performance evaluation, algorithmic trading, patient data processing, predictive maintenance, social media content, cybersecurity, text-based automated bots, internet of things sensor data analysis -- and human emotion analysis (this one, in particular, we all may need).
AI predictions trigger fear
Not since the splitting of the atom has a technological phenomenon triggered such a wide range of hyperbolic emotions and opinions -- from exuberance to resistance to paranoia to sheer terror, from hopes for a better life to warnings of Armageddon.
Science fiction writers have had a field day with AI since the 1950s, playing upon people's fears that menacing robots will one day destroy mankind and take over the world. That paralleled the very real concerns over radioactive fallout from hydrogen bomb testing during the atomic age, which spawned similar doomsday scenarios of giant mutated ants, locusts and spiders -- not to mention the monster all nuclear monsters, Godzilla. Today, the anxiety over AI seems to be intensifying as the technology's tentacles -- machine learning, deep learning, cognitive computing, computer vision, natural language processing -- reach into virtually every corner of the civilized world at an accelerated pace.
"Some really smart people see the apocalypse coming," Deloitte innovation managing director David Schatsky said during AI World. At the very least, we're at a point when we no longer have to ponder the impact of AI technologies on civilization. The reality is upon us. And for better or worse, expect to be chauffeured through what could very well be an AI-dominated world by autonomous vehicles in the not-too-distant future -- make that about two more years in Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk's estimation.
Time for some soul-searching
With all this hyperventilating over the anticipated acceleration of AI, now is as good a time as any to lightly tap the brake pedal -- as Musk has been doing these past several months -- and question where the proliferation of AI technologies is leading us. Musk has taken to the streets with speeches, interviews, open letters and tweets to warn civilization about the "fundamental risk" and "existential threat" the dark side of AI poses to humans. Add physicist Stephen Hawking's trepidation that AI will someday replace humans, and the algorithm of the future can look rather grim.
"We're marching toward any number cliffs," security technologist Bruce Schneier told an audience at AI World. "Things don't look rosy right now, [but] I don't think this is the thing that will destroy our species."
Perhaps AI's real threat to civilization is a lot more subtle. "I don't worry about the effects AI way down the road," Schneier conjectured, "but shorter term when we no longer think and act for ourselves."
In the immortal words of Alfred E. Neuman, "What, me worry?" What's there to worry about when we have so many AI products at our disposal to help us think, act and essentially become armchair spectators of our own lives?
Lyra CEO Liam Hanel provides an extensive list of more than 500 AI tools for personal and business use. Rest assured, help is on the way for practically every human task imaginable: "Ems helps you find the perfect place to live"; "Newton helps you find the dream job"; "Capsule.ai helps you recall the good times in life"; "Fify helps you shop for clothing"; "Electra by Lore helps you to answer questions about your business"; "Mattermark helps you find the right person within the right company"; "Entropy helps you to measure and raise employees' emotional intelligence." Why there's even a bot advertised on TV that opens bot-tles -- jarring indeed!
I'm not about to concern myself with a Skynet type of scenario in which AI systems conspire to destroy a fictionalized earth. Therefore, I gravitate more toward the Schneier AI camp and less toward the Musk camp in that the greatest AI threat might not come from outside forces but rather from the enemy within -- allowing ourselves to be overly assisted in everyday life by an intelligence that's becoming less and less artificial. So to overcome the temptation to acquiesce, I've taken poetic license and created the following mantra for myself: I will drive my own car and open my own jar.
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