Just a few years ago, Artificial Intelligence (AI) was a science fiction concept. Depending on the movie you watched, it consisted of robots either plotting to destroy humanity or helping everyone become better versions of themselves.
But as it turns out, as our capability to develop AI has evolved, so has its normalcy. Every time you search for anything on Google, a machine learning algorithm helps you find the most relevant results. Personal assistants like Amazon Alexa and Google Home are the most obvious examples of AI today. But for every Siri, there is a more subtle application like Pandora’s automatic music suggestions based on personal tastes.
Make no mistake: Artificial Intelligence is a core part of the digital transformation we see today. But rather than accomplishing that feat in obvious ways like the plot of iRobot, its applications are often more difficult to notice. Lift the veil, and the possibilities of the technology come into view.
The Basic Idea of Artificial Intelligence
Everyone knows the basic idea behind AI: a computer that, thanks to revolutionary programming, has developed its own decision-making process. Rather than simply answering queries and running through pre-developed data, it can use that data to draw conclusions and make decisions as a result.
AI, in other words, means simulating the human brain through technology. So naturally, most people’s first thought has historically gone to a sinister application, human-like robots that don’t feel the emotions necessary to control their actions. In reality, though, the same concept can–and does–manifest itself in simpler ways.
Machine Learning as a Core Internet Experience
To understand AI in today’s consumer environment, considering the concept of machine learning is a crucial start. Machine learning, in essence, allows computers to mine and adapt to data without additional programming, thanks to iterative algorithms.
In non-computer science speak, it allows computer programs to analyse, learn from, and adjust to the data fed into them instead of simply executing the commands put in by programmers.
If a broader concept of AI is the future, machine learning is already here. Google, for example, makes extensive use of the concept in its search algorithms. Since it acquired the British artificial intelligence company DeepMind Technologies in 2014, the company’s investment in machine learning has gone up exponentially. Today, machine learning is a core reason why you see the results that you do, and why your colleague may see different results with the same query.
Facebook is making use of the same concept. Anyone with an active presence on the world’s largest social media presence will know that its news feed is not organized chronologically. Instead, an algorithm called EdgeRank sorts posts by friends and liked pages dynamically, based on past interaction with these publishers. When you show a tendency to like or comment on posts from a specific friend, that person’s content will be more likely to show up in your news feed in the future.
As it turns out, that calculation is based on machine learning. Similarly, Netflix’s recommendation engine learns from both your past shows and the average rating of shows yet to be watched to project which may be most interesting to consume next.
Machine learning impacts your digital life in more subtle ways, as well. Increasingly, marketers of major brands across industries are investing in the concept to better understand their core audiences. Seeing a digital ad that seems suspiciously relevant to something you just did may just be a result of this machine learning emphasis.
The Glorious World of Voice Assistants
Of course, we’d be remiss to discuss AI’s impact on your life without talking about the increasingly ubiquitous voice assistants. From Google’s Assistant to Siri, any new smartphone now comes with one of these assistants. In addition, millions of in-home voice assistants are now sold across the world.
Increasingly, these assistants are more than just fun toys. Less than a year ago, Google estimated that 20% of its searches are now voice-based, and the continuing rise of internet-connected household devices and items that can be connected to the assistant showcases their current and future potential.
Here, we have artificial intelligence in its most thought-out consumer-connected role. Talk to Alexa or Google for long enough, and you may actually feel like you are discussing politics or listening to a joke from an (albeit mechanical) conversation partner. A little round box is not quite ready to take over the world, but it does veer closer to the science fiction image of a humanoid robot than the rather abstract machine learning concepts discussed above.
As a heated competition for market share unfolds, you haven’t seen the last of these devices. It’s no longer a stretch to imagine a fully connected home that knows and understands your preferences for heat, air conditioning, music, when to draw the blinds, and more. But while voice assistants are only beginning to take off, other examples of AI in your life are already here.
The Future of AI is Already Here
In the past two years, it’s been difficult to watch the news, read a magazine, or consume any other type of media without hearing about self-driving cars. Have you ever wondered how these cars could actually detect variables that range from traffic trends to the weather?
Once again, Google is at the forefront of this experiment. Two years ago, it announced a concept that would allow self-driving cars to get better with experience, similar to human drivers. We’re not quite there yet, but other car makers such as Tesla already have similar versions on the market and available for consumers today.
Other examples of AI in the consumer world today are more subtle. If you’ve ever engaged in a customer support live chat with one of your favourite brands, do you know whether you talked to a real person or a computer program? Depending on the business, the answer could be either–but it’s increasingly difficult to tell the difference.
Similarly, chatbots on networks like Facebook are experimenting a simulation of brand interactions without the personal touch needed from the business side. The results have been mixed so far, but are beginning to improve and could redefine the social in social media in the near future.
Finally, you may not look at journalism the same once you realise that today, AI programs are writing news stories for major outlets like The Associated Press, Yahoo, and more. According to Wired Magazine, stock market summaries and sports game recaps are only the beginning of what computer programs could accomplish in the news room.
That all may sound a little scary. But have no fear: we’re still far away from artificial intelligence actually taking charge of our lives. For the time being, applicants are designed specifically to improve our lives, including the convenience with which we behave and shop online. AI is changing your life; but in most cases, the changes are subtle enough that you can appreciate the effects without having to ponder or worry about the cause.
No one knows what the future holds. But in the near term, we will likely see technology like self-driving cars and completely connected home assistants become more popular and more capable. Artificial intelligence is changing your life, right now–but that might be insignificant compared to the long-term impacts this technology will have on everyone around us.