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October 9, 2017

A Survivor's Guide to Artificial Intelligence

Ian Moss


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I rented a luxury car recently, so that I could travel in style to my eldest son's wedding. I was delighted, primarily with the celebration, but also with the vehicle.

The BMW 335d's power was phenomenal and its technology was mind-blowing, to such an extent that there were times when I wasn't sure who was driving – me or the car. This was particularly evident when I came to park for the first time.

I live on a narrow street with only a few spaces for cars, so there is a "bit of an art" to leaving them in a safe way that doesn't cause an obstruction. But I arrived home in my shiny new hire car, made full use of its Park Distance Control function, and maneuvered into a tiny space with ease.

I realized that I was the one in control of the vehicle, ultimately, but that the car's on-board computer was assisting me. It had artificial intelligence. Or was it machine learning? Or was it both? I had more questions than answers about my smart BMW.

My Imaginary Robot Friend

Fortunately, my imaginary robot neighbor and friend, Ritchie, had returned from his jazz guitar lesson (he's the teacher) and was on hand to help me out with a few of my queries. Here's a transcript of our conversation.

Hi Ritchie...

Hello Ian, how may I help you today?

I'd like you to tell me something about Artificial Intelligence, please.

Hmnph. It's where computers, like me, get smart, Ian. We make sense of things, we learn as we go along, and we interact with the outside world. All without having to be programmed by humans like you.

Thanks. So what is Machine Learning, then?

Well, if you think of AI as the overall term, then ML sits under it. It is the technique that enables computers to "think" for themselves by utilising mathematical algorithms that are based on collected data.

How do we Create Artificial Intelligence?

OK, I sort of get that, but could you simplify it even further for me, please?

No, Ian, I can't. But my human friend, Nidhi Chappell, can. She's the director of machine learning at Intel and is used to dealing with robots like me, but even better at dealing with humans like you. She explains it like this: "AI is basically the intelligence – how we make machines intelligent, while machine learning is the implementation of the compute methods that support it. The way I think of it is: AI is the science and machine learning is the algorithms that make the machines smarter. So the enabler for AI is machine learning."

Excellent. That's my kind of talk. So my BMW was displaying AI.What other examples of AI are there? My brain's just crashed.

Ha Ha... Is that a computer joke? It's OK, don't answer. That's my job. Well, the fact is, AI is all around us these days: from weather forecasting, to helping you to buy your groceries online. It forms the foundation of "smart cities" with their electricity and transport provision, for instance. Doctors use it to diagnose conditions and gauge the success of treatments. AI recognises voices and images. Fully self-driving vehicles are just around the corner. The list goes on.

AI Investment to Triple

As you know, Ritchie, I work for an organization that provides business skills learning resources. In what ways is artificial intelligence going to shape companies at grassroots level?

Well, according to an article in the Harvard Business Review, investment in AI is predicted to triple in 2017 and reach $100 billion in 2025. You can safely say that it is changing, and will further change, the workplace. Customer service; loyalty and retention; hiring people;  finance automation; brand exposure; fraud detection; automated and predictive maintenance; and supply chain management are all areas where the use of artificial intelligence is in full swing.

Further down the road, career planning; drone/satellite asset management (looking after bridges, highways and things like that); and retail shelf analysis are all earmarked as candidates for AI's focus.

I feel an "Oh my goodness, will computers and robots take all our jobs?" type of question brewing... Well, will they?

Steady, dude. Some important people have voiced their concerns. Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk, no less. So it's an issue that must be taken seriously. Although I must point out that human beings have a sketchy record when it comes to predicting the future and technological developments!

With all this change on the horizon, Ritchie, have you got any good advice? 

You tell me, Ian. You're the one who works for Mind Tools.

Fair enough. Well, we have hundreds of excellent learning tools. Here's a relevant one, on coping with change.

Thanks, I'll take a look at that.

Hang on... one last question. Are you guys going to take over the planet? Is the end of the world nigh?

Sorry, Ian, that was two questions.



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