Artificial Intelligence: Definition, applications and impact

Monday, 22 January 2018 12:12

AI is frequently referenced with marketing or technophobic hype: media typically overstate the capabilities and in some cases, they present dystopias as the long-term outcome of AI. If we isolate this hype and focus on the progress made throughout the recent years, we will clearly see several major technological advancements with fascinating, new capabilities. And we can avoid dystopias: under certain conditions, AI will dramatically improve our world and the quality of life.

Artificial Intelligence defined

A non-technical, short definition of an Artificial Intelligence would be ‘the technology which enables systems to encapsulate cognitive functions along with adaptive and learning capabilities – leading to self-improvement’.

Modern AI systems can capture and ‘understand’ their environment in real time, while making optimal, real-time decisions towards specific objectives. Environment capturing and ‘understanding’ is powered by processing multiple signals and data streams in real-time mode: technologies such as Computer Vision and Natural Language Processing, enable AI systems to ‘understand’ pictures , videos and natural language (voice or text). The following provide a few characteristic examples.

Computer Vision – algorithms can now ‘see’

This is an astonishing achievement – the ability of a computer to ‘see’ and identify entities, situations or even stories in photos and videos. Any random image or video can be ‘instantly’ analysed against popular entities (persons, cars, houses, streets, trees etc.) and possibly context-specific logic. Moreover, algorithms can estimate additional attributes of the image and properties of the entities identified: in the above example, these could include the number of persons in the picture, their gender, age or even their emotional state; or the type of cars and their brands. It is also feasible to identify the situation implied in the image or video – such as a party, a sports event, a business conference or a random arrangement of people in a park.

The possible applications of computer vision are impressive: from autonomous cars which can ‘see’ in 360 and understand their environment and its dynamics in real-time, to special applications like the Seeing AI by Microsoft – a prototype system helping people who are visually impaired to understand their environment. In the latter example, the user could ask for a detailed description of the surrounding space or for updates on changes; the response could be then provided as a description of the entities and activities in the environment, in natural language, via synthesized voice.

Navigation systems, robotics, medical examination, online content management, security systems are just some indicative areas of applications powered by Computer Vision.

The dialogue with the ‘machine’

A short interaction with Amazon Alexa, Cortana, Siri or Google Assistant, is sufficient to realize the huge progress of Natural Language Processing technologies. Microsoft and IBM recently announced that their NLP technologies perform at the same level (or better) compared to professional transcribers in processing discussions with topics ranging from sports to politics. Although NLP algorithms may still have difficulties with different accents and noisy environments, their overall performance is improving fast.

Interaction with Digital Assistants expands from ad-hoc ‘question and answers’ scenarios to ‘natural dialogues’. Digital Assistants are getting smarter – powered by the wealth of data available for the users and their environment; DAs will soon act autonomously – for example by initiating a meaningful discussion which is triggered by non-obvious logic applied on signals from user’s environment and the deep knowledge the system has for the user and his/her implied or explicitly-stated preferences. Your DA will soon ask you ‘random’ but surprisingly meaningful questions; or make interesting and timely suggestions regarding social, informational, educational, scheduling and traveling activities. And the most important, is that it will learn and self-improve according to your engagement levels and other patterns of your life style.

The value and the concerns

The progress in AI technologies along with the expanding capabilities of handling and processing massive volumes of data, drives this major technological revolution we are about to experience. In the context of Internet of Things (IoT), billions of connected devices will be sending events, operational and other data, which will be stored and processed by advanced Big Data, Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence technologies. This wealth of data, combined with the increasing ability to automatically make sense of it, will create unprecedented opportunities for improvement across health, lifestyle, transportation, education and practically every human activity.

On the other hand, there are serious concerns and unanswered questions regarding possible social, political and ethical implications. For instance, the ‘intelligent automation’ which can be achieved at scale by using Artificial Intelligence, is expected to transform the way we work and the skills in demand: as tasks will gradually become fully automated, specific roles will become obsolete and some professions will eventually disappear. Other voices, raise issues regarding ‘who has access and control’ over the accumulated data, the derived knowledge and the power provided by Artificial Intelligence.

The technological revolution is here and it is already transforming our world. People need to get ready, first by understanding the technology, its potential and the associated risks; then by entering a life-learning mode to acquire new skills and explore new talents which are more relevant to the new market order. States need to understand the dynamics and adapt by modernizing laws, frameworks, social programmes and the education system. Thought leaders need to drive the right rules and global agreements to avoid centralization of power and control over data and technology.

George Krasadakis
Technology Innovation Leader
George Krasadakis is a Product Architect with extensive experience in conceiving, engineering and driving innovative software products and online services to market; Innovation leader and technology inventor with more than 17 patents on Personalization, IoT, Artificial Intelligence, Analytics & Big Data, Content management, Natural User Interfaces and e-commerce.

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