AI: Science fiction or not?

Source: Trends (28/06/2018)

There's no escaping it these days: artificial intelligence (AI for short) is everywhere. The current hype actually paints a rather distorted picture, as AI has existed for much longer than we might think. In true Game of Thrones style, this technology has even survived so-called “AI Winters”. The huge progress made between 1950 and 1970 ground to a standstill for a long time because of the lack of infrastructure, data and funding. Today, we have reached a point where the infrastructure required to make the most of AI is slowly becoming a reality. Computers are getting faster and more powerful, the algorithms which AI relies on are becoming increasingly refined and there is no lack of data either these days. Although experts point out that the stability of the infrastructure could still be improved, it can safely be said that we have reached a key point in the evolution of the AI industry.

It should therefore come as no surprise to learn that both large, established companies and young startups are busy experimenting with all kinds of AI applications, across all sectors. One of the most appealing examples is self-driving cars and trucks. However, applications also exist in the service sector. As many contracts largely consist of the same clauses, for example, AI could be used to create a kind of standard contract which is then honed by a lawyer to suit the client. A more efficient use of their time and your money. Or perhaps AI could help investors to reach a more accurate valuation for a new funding round? Chatbots have already put in an appearance and these days computers can even imitate voices perfectly. In agriculture, AI is now being used to spot crop diseases at an early stage or let farmers know that their fruit is ready for harvesting. And AI has even made its official entrance into the healthcare sector: the FDA recently approved the first device which can detect an eye disease in diabetes patients using AI software.

Science fiction? Actually, a lot of it comes down to advanced data analysis. Some people also call it “statistics on steroids”, as AI largely tries to recognise patterns in data. Collecting this data is therefore one of the biggest challenges. Take the eye disease example above: if you want the software to be able to specify with sufficient accuracy whether or not someone has the disease, you first need to find enough people who are prepared to make their medical details available to the company in question. Only this will make it possible to identify a pattern for recognising the disease. It goes without saying that legislation will play an increasingly important role here, a point which should not be underestimated if we do not wish to fall behind other continents that have already made greater progress.

As a result, there can be no doubt that AI will influence our lives significantly in the years ahead. The side effects of this development in terms of jobs, for example, are not yet clear at this point. It seems certain that some jobs – truck driver would be a good example – will disappear. How quickly this will happen, and to what extent, are two different questions. Does AI software mean that doctors will no longer be needed to detect diseases within the next ten to twenty years? I doubt it. And will we still need teachers if a robot or computer can teach us everything which could technically be taught? I should think so, but their role will not be the same as it is today. In my opinion, the big challenge lies in exploring what our new role can and must be and how we can help each other to find these new roles. Some people will find the transition easier than others. I would like to call upon our politicians to think beyond the next legislature, to already respond to the impact of all these evolutions on our society and to find the best ways of preparing for this.

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