The Future Isn’t AI,
It’s Already Here
You don’t need to be a gadget hound or tech-obsessive to have an idea of how artificial intelligence has become the hot topic. To wit: A quick web search of the phrase “How AI Will Change Everything” turns up 16.7 million results, and a who’s who of periodicals relying on that cliched headline. The gist is reliably how the enticing and sometimes scary technological marvels of the not so distant future will all be powered by machines that have been trained—or even taught themselves—to think and even act.
Well, we’d agree!
But the honest truth is, that mysterious date in which our everyday lives are seamlessly intertwined with machines that shape and influence our lives has already come and gone. A typical smartphone-toting American interfaces with AI-powered machines throughout their day via a rich array of circumstances. Here’s a look at some of the ways AI is already making our lives more efficient, affordable and even entertaining.
Virtual Digital Assistants: If you’ve ever summoned Siri (or the Android version, Google Assistant) or Amazon’s Alexa to look up the weather, or a sports score, or to play a song or book an appointment, you are relying on some pretty impressive AI, as well as hardware. Even the most trivial query you make gets sent wirelessly to the cloud where your voice is parsed to understand what language you’re speaking, what words you use, what they mean and your intent and then an answer is dug up and sent back to you in a language that is understandable—all in seconds or less. The ability to “comprehend” natural spoken language is perhaps the holy grail of AI, and even today’s impressive results are just the beginning.
Navigation: Whether Google Maps is your go-to navigator or Apple Maps rides shotgun in your whip, both use AI to pull together route options, traffic, waypoints along with basic search info like “sneaker store” or “mexican food” among many other data points—including, especially, your personal preferences, rituals and plans. In fact, Google’s version of Maps for Android has one feature that’s not only insanely smart but terrifyingly so—hop in and start driving and it will automatically call up your route and traffic info based on an educated guess about your plans.
Similarly, professional and now consumer drones all rely on computer vision AI for object and collision avoidance, allowing them to zip around through the skies on pre-determined or ad hoc routes without fear of taking out a powerline, tree or other airborne vehicle along the way. This sort of tech will be crucial to making Amazon’s dream of drone delivery of packages a reality.
Social Media: Initially the fascination of Facebook and other social networks was that it was a simple centralized way for college acquaintances (or even strangers) to connect. Today’s social media empires have become astonishingly sophisticated data-processing services that rely heavily on bleeding edge AI to offer their most compelling services. For instance, Facebook’s image-recognition AI, a subset dubbed computer vision, is equal to or better than a human when it comes to correctly labeling faces. (It’s so accurate and powerful, it can scan 800 million images and find your face in under 5 seconds. In fact, Facebook has software that is able to recognize you without even seeing your face) But the company also has AI churning through news stories, and the ordering of your personal feed, friend suggestions, ads, all relying on a homegrown secret sauce that creates highly customized and—as you surely would confess—addictive experiences. AI’s prominence in social networking applications is also a purely practical one: Every minute more than 500,000 comments are made and 293,000 statuses are updated on Facebook alone, while Twitter processes some 500 million Tweets per day. And Snapchat deals with an unbelievable firehose of 2.5 billion daily snaps. Humans now create such a volume of data that we need AI simply to process it all.
Transportation: Without a doubt, the sexiest implementation of AI to date is available to anyone who has triumphed over the waiting list for a Tesla. The company’s electric cars rely on computer vision AI fed by a battery of cameras, sensors, and crucially, a heavy duty GPU, to supply data that allows the car to perform what even five years ago would have seemed like sci-fi nonsense. While not all features are enabled yet, the company has demonstrated how the car can drop you off and self-park—even making sure the spot isn’t handicapped or reserved—and then summoned to pick you up. While they technically aren’t fully self-driving, as drivers are supposed to always keep their hands on the wheel, in practice they’re pretty darn close and can drive point to point safely even avoiding obstacles and crashes. But far less tech-savvy cars also employ forms of AI for instance to prevent crashes, like the new Alfa Romeo Giulia, or simply to parallel park, like cars from virtually every major auto manufacturer, from Audi to Toyota. And of course Uber has publicly announced its ultimate business plan is to convert its entire fleet of drivers to completely autonomous vehicles, though the timeline extends to 2030.
Retail: Chances are pretty good the last time you decided to buy something you went online first. And whether you did a web search via Google, or hit up Amazon or Baidu directly, your query was almost certainly processed using AI to produce the best most accurate results—for local pricing, availability, store preference and options among other things. In particular, Amazon’s entire operation is a technological marvel of efficiency combining best-in-category product selection and delivery thanks to a chain of high-tech warehouses staffed by robots, and all kept in sync with, you got it AI. That also explains Amazon’s uncannily accurate recommendations for products but also books and music among other items). Similarly, other online services such as travel sites use AI to predict pricing and availability trends, and at the other end individual airlines like Easyjet employ AI get a competitive edge (how else do you fly to Sarajevo for $7)? And finally, the latest trend in customer engagement is the chatbot, those sort of mini-apps within other messaging platforms that allow you to do everything from order a Domino’s pizza to shop Zappos for shoes on a whim without having to switch to another app or service. You guessed it: AI is behind the scenes, learning from every new encounter and becoming ever more useful and friendly.
Illustrations by Sergio Membrillas