Little AI takes centre stage

Published on the 23/03/2017 | Written by Anthony Caruana

Peter Schwarz_Salesforce

Salesforce futurist Peter Schwartz makes his calls on what artificial intelligence won’t look like…

Schwartz has an interesting role at Salesforce. His job is to tell the future, although they put Vice President of Strategic Planning on his business cards. He did exactly that in his presentation to a receptive audience at the vendor’s World Tour in Sydney this week.

He predicts that as technology becomes embedded in more devices and activities we are going to see a world where technology “comes alive”. Salesforce’s oldest employee, at aged 70, is also the one most concerned, after founder and president Marc Benioff, with the future direction of the company. But he’s seen the world move from the mainframe, through client-server into today’s cloud-based era. He was one of the first people to use the internet and was the real-life inspiration for the character Matthew Broderick played in the iconic 1980s hacker movie War Games.

With the recent launch of Salesforce’s new AI solution, Einstein, Schwartz began by explaining what AI wasn’t going to be able to do.

“It’s very hard to understand the human brain at sufficient depth to try to map that onto silicon.”

Schwartz says that human-like robots are far-fetched. “What we are seeing now is a shift towards little AI”.

“These are small bits of intelligence embedded everywhere that take the friction out of any process so the people don’t have to think about it,” he says.

An example of this is Amazon’s One-Click shopping experience. Schwartz says there are many small pieces of intelligence and automation that link the user’s past shopping with a recommendation engine, shipping information, and payments. The points of friction, where a customer might abandon their shopping cart, are removed.

Little AI will be a major part of the future, said Schwartz. Mobility, increased connectivity, the increasing pace of change, and improved system intelligence will drive AI to assist us at becoming more productive in an increasingly complex world.

Smartphones will continue to be the hub for a great variety of services for the immediate future. This will extend from health and well-being data to diagnostics from cars through to smart home appliances. And this will be part of an increasingly monitored life as more activities are tracked and recorded from CCTV to sensors we wear or carry.

Beyond today, Schwartz identified three major trends that will shape the future.

Augmented reality, rather than virtual reality, is going to be very important. The obvious public example was Pokémon Go which overlaid external data onto the real world. There are myriad applications for equipment maintenance, healthcare and other fields he said.

Haptic reality and feedback will be used to further augment our senses. For example, clothing has been developed that will provide vibratory feedback based on stimuli. Schwartz showed an example of blind and deaf people being instructed in how to recognise people and objects through the patterns of vibration in clothing equipped with haptic feedback systems.

The third, and most significant in Schwartz’s view, is neural control – using our brains to control devices. Driven by advances in the development of prosthetics, Schwartz says this will completely reshape the way we interact with our environment.

“We are going to be in a world where everything around us is going to be connected and awake.”

Already, we are seeing people, homes and cars that are more connected. And workplaces and cities are following suit. As more devices know more about us we will move from the era of personal computing to one of intimate computing where our computers know more about us than we know about them.

This, according to Schwartz, will lead to a revolution in the services sector. Personal services will be delivered directly to each person. We will each have a personal assistant. The big decision, he outlined, will be deciding which ecosystem we want to join – although he predicts the turf war between Apple, Amazon and others will be resolved in time.

With the rise of AI, even in the small form Schwartz expects to be dominant for the foreseeable future, we will be able to look ahead to predict and prescribe, rather than be limited to only looking back. This will happen with little or no human intervention and systems will be able to conduct that analysis.

The rise of AI and automation has not come without concerns. The biggest one being the concern about job losses. However, Schwartz pointed to long-term data that showed employment levels in the US had actually increased over several technology eras, with only small shifts during times of recession or higher prosperity.

AI will disrupt today’s world but, quoting recently passed fellow futurist Alvin Toffler, Schwartz said “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read or write, but those that cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

Adding to the futuristic theme at the event was the use of “silent disco” headphone technology which saw a silent auditorium of delegates tuned in to presentations via wireless headsets.

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