AI: An Overview

By: Siva Soorya

77% of us use an AI-powered device: A look into its evolution and future impact on the economy.

Last week, Amazon’s Alexa was updated with the capability to make calls and send text messages to iPads, Amazon Fire tablets and Android devices. This is just one of the interesting updates which have been added to the device this year. Others include: sending money via voice assistant, producing AI-generated music, transforming how business meetings are run by dialing into conference calls and improving health literacy through ‘Answers by Cigna’. The ecosystem of the companies (some of them are Amazon-controlled) working on these updates to Alexa constitute a small economy by themselves, worth $50 million and employing hundreds of skilled workers, according to CNET. 30 years ago, a prototype of a cloud-based voice service like Alexa would have been considered miraculous. What changed? Partly, the answer is the evolution of artificial intelligence.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) can be loosely defined as the ability of a computer program or a machine to think and learn. Broadly speaking, there are two types of AI: General and Narrow. The majority of currently active artificial intelligence we see around us is actually Narrow AI. This type of AI is good at performing a single task repeatedly; it is this type which is threatening to displace thousands of jobs by doing it more effectively than an average human being. General AI on the other hand, is defined as “machine intelligence with the full range of human intelligence”.

But how did AI, which was once perceived to be a figment of our imagination become the hottest topic in technology? It all started in the 1950s, when scientists were trying to create general AI. The goal was to create a droid that could replicate some human actions, but this proved to be harder than expected. The words “artificial intelligence” were coined in a proposal submitted in 1955. The same year, two academicians developed the first narrowly artificial intelligent program ‘Logic Theorist’, which could prove 38 of the first 52 theorems in Principia Mathematica. The 1960’s and 70’s were probably the first attempt to define what AI was: machines which can perform repetitive tasks without committing an error (in other words, narrow AI). In the upcoming decades, there were several improvements and modifications made but none were a widespread success or were mostly done for academic and research purposes at universities and think thanks. AI though caught the attention of the public in 1998 when Deep Blue computer beat the then reigning Chess Champion Garry Kasparov for the first time. A year later, Sony introduced AIBO pet dogs.  AI development has seen explosive growth since then. Today, AI surrounds us in various forms, whether it be in the form of virtual assistant which helps patients and clients (healthcare), chatbots and software which extracts important points from documents (banking) and carry out risk assessment (cybersecurity).

Significant headways in AI already have a huge bearing on the global economy and will play an increasingly large role in the future. AI is expected to add $15.7 trillion to the world economy by 2030, according to a PWC report published in 2017. In general, the four areas which have been identified to be completely transformed by AI are professional services, financial services, manufacturing and retail. A McKinsey report, also published last year, has suggested that 400-800 million of the current jobs would be automated by 2030. The PWC report also said that 38% of jobs in the U.S. could be vulnerable to AI by the early 2030s. Hence, we can definitely say that AI is the next big opportunity, where all businesses, irrespective of what economic sector you are in, are looking at.

However, while AI will make many careers obsolete, it will also introduce new job opportunities. It is more important to look job loss through the angle of the rate of adoption of such a transmutive technology. Whether it was adoption of electricity in the first half of 20th century or adoption of computers in the second half, or adopting mechanization of human skills and activities, these patterns would hold true for AI as well in this half. But if the pattern is similar, the pace may not be. “And if it is much faster, as many researchers predict, the social consequences could be far more wrenching than in past transitions”, says Steve Lohr, a Pulitzer Prize winning author for NYTimes.

Another factor to consider in the near future is that technology itself is not only the one ingredient in determining the trajectory of AI Economics, government policy and social attitudes will play major roles as well. So, what is the government doing to regulate all these advancements? Having seen the developments in the autonomous vehicles, it is quite safe to say that both excessive regulation and minimal interference is harmful for the industry. I think instead of completely regulating the field of AI, government authorities need to constitute a body consisting of industry heads who can establish guidelines regarding practises, opportunities, challenges and the general safety of Artificial Intelligence. I also believe it is very important to take in the view of the most important interest group: the consumers. A Pegasystems survey said that 45% of respondents want human sales agents rather that AI-enabled chatbots. Even online, 80% of the respondents prefer interacting with a human than a robot. With regards to transparency, only 27% want their private data to be used for better customer service. In the wake of the entire Facebook data breach controversy, it would be interesting to see if that statistic remains the same.

At the end, the applications of AI are immense and unlimited in scope and ambition. Time is the most important commodity for human beings in this world and AI is exactly saving that. Soon, we would have an economy where all jobs in today’s workforce which involve repetitive tasks would be done by AI-enabled devices. At the same time, we must also remember that we are leaving sensitive data in the hands of AI devices. As soon as possible, there has to be a code of ethics to prevent any negative effects of AI on the human society. There are a number of prominent tech gurus and scientists who have voiced the potentially dangerous effects and unintended repercussions of artificial intelligence on human civilization including Bill Gates, Elon Musk and the recently deceased Stephen Hawking. On the other hand, there are others like Mark Zuckerberg & Steve Wozniak who feel artificial intelligence would usher in an era of unprecedented human achievement. Elon Musk had said “With artificial intelligence, we are trying to summon the demon”. Well, it might be too early to determine the unforeseen consequences, but everyone can come down to the same page that AI is a field everyone around the world must be updated on the latest developments.