AI will go where the data is

AI will go where the data is

When discussing artificial intelligence, people often end up visualizing what our world will look like 50 years from now. Let’s not look that far, let’s instead focus on which industries AI is most likely to revolutionize in the coming few years.

The key here is data. AI is nothing without a good amount of intelligence (it’s in the name, duh). For AI to be effective, the data collection needs to work well, and it must be available.
Because of this, AI might actually be most effective in some of the world’s oldest industries, like agriculture and health care.

In agriculture, the vast amount of harvest data is used to place seeds and chemicals exactly where they’re needed, autonomous harvesting, automatically watering the soil, and notifying the farmer of what’s going on with the crops. With sensors in the soil monitoring temperature, water levels, and movement, farmers can water only the areas that actually need it, which is both more efficient, cheap, and environmentally friendly.

In healthcare, AI helps doctors make better decisions for each patient with predictive analysis, as well as identify at-risk patients by using pattern recognition. AI has also improved the chances of early detection of certain diseases like breast cancer. With AI, mammograms can be reviewed 30 times faster with a 99 percent accuracy, which can drastically reduce the number of unnecessary biopsies.

Within this field, it also helps that many consumers are joining in on the trend, using wearable devices powered by the Internet of Medical Things (IoMT). The data these gadgets register can be used to help consumers change unhealthy habits, facilitate for doctors to detect and monitor heart problems earlier, and give medical staff better insights into day-to-day patterns.
A more controversial usage of AI in healthcare is humanoid robot caretakers for the elderly. These robots could decrease the pressure on the healthcare system by treating each patient in an optimal way and offering human-like interactions (or even conversations) which could help patients with diseases like dementia stay sharper. Agriculture and healthcare are not the only sectors at the forefront of the AI revolution. Other industries that already have enough data for AI include transportation, delivery services, manufacturing, and construction.

What’s your score?

What’s your score?

China’s tech and AI development is impressive. But it might also lead to the largest population on Earth being completely controlled by a totalitarian state. The tool? A social score used to reward or punish people, based on data from digital platforms and surveillance cameras.

In today’s world there are few topics that ­really get the discussion going the way ­China does. Facts are mixed with personal experiences and random overheard stories. Eastern propaganda clashing with Western freedom of speech sparks both fear and curiosity on both ends. Lately the conversation has been focused on China’s AI and tech development. Media, ­futurists, think tanks, agencies and other global organizations have bombarded us with news and forecasts on how China is becoming the world’s leader in tech expansion and AI ­research. These areas are at the top of the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) agenda, and Chinese tech companies often work closely together with the government.

What kind of society will emerge?

Three of the nine biggest companies for AI ­development globally are Chinese; Baidu, ­Tencent and Alibaba. These three together are worth around one trillion US dollar and their investments have skyrocketed, aquiring 164 unicorns during last year. But what does it mean when a totalitarian state takes the lead in such a development – what kind of society will emerge? And how will this affect the Chinese people and the rest of the world?

The MIT technology review from 2017 claimed we should not fear this ­development happening in China.It also argued that the West should copy it. The word “copy” goes well with “made in China”, right? That is how the West has perceived China for a long time, as a factory lacking any respect for copy­right or trademarks. But the tables have been turning. Only during the last decade in China, an art culture has also completely exploded; a new music scene has developed, and amazing ­design and creativity is flourishing. “Made in China” is now “Made by China”.

For decades, the West has been skeptical ­towards China. And China has, as a nation, been losing face collectively to the West for a long time. So imagine what it means when a report from MIT says that the West should copy ­China. Especially since Chinese people value personal honor and pride in everything – for a Chinese person to lose face in any way is the ultimate embarrassment. To them, the time has finally come to get the recognition they rightfully deserve. The West is suddenly in awe of China’s AI and tech development, eagerly trying to build collaboration bridges and ­establish knowledge exchange.

But there’s another side to the story – there’s a real risk that within a few years the largest population on Earth might be completely controlled by a totalitarian state, enabling one state ruler to change the behavior of each and every citizen with a single click.

A number ranks each person

The first time I heard of the social credit system was three years ago, when I still lived in China. With a massive smile and a gleam in her eye, my colleague Liwen snuck into my office and whispered, “I got a pay rise and my ­social credit has gone up!” I had to confess I had no idea what she was talking about and when she was done explaining I had chills all over. The system has been in place since 2014 and will be fully operational in 2020. The scheme is mandatory, and the exact methodology is – of course – a secret. The basics are: each citizen is given a social score. A number that ranks every individual, giving high or low scores based on data from different digital platforms on lifestyle behavior, status, friends and family etc. The score determines if you are going to be rewarded or punished. The rewards for a high credit score are many; favorable loans for housing, streamlined visa procedures for traveling abroad, even suggestions of high-class dating apps should your marriage not last.

The sword of Damocles

The punishments are harsh. A low score means difficulties getting train or flight tickets, slower internet speed (we refer to the web in China as “Chinternet – almost like having internet”, a closed network surrounded by the Great Fire Wall of China. You can imagine, it is not great to begin with), inability for your child to get into good schools, obstacles when looking for a new job, not being able to sign lease contracts and much more. These rewards and punishments are just the official ones.

The social credit system aims to “purify ­society” by letting “good people” move about without obstruction and leave a constant threat hanging like the sword of Damocles over the “bad ones”.
I recently caught up with a friend who lives in China. He occasionally goes out drinking with the local district police officers and at the end of a late night the (highly inebriated) chief of police picked up his phone, and took a blurry picture of a random patron next to them. Then he ran a search and showed the result to my friend where the man’s name and additional information instantly came up. “I can find ­anyone on this”, the chief boasted.

The CPC’s goal is to build a database over the entire population, enabling recognition of a citizen within seconds. The current surveillance network in China consists of about 200 million cameras all over the country and will be extended to 300-600 million cameras in 2020 (more exact numbers have not been made official). China’s development within AI and tech gives anyone with security clearance the possibility to locate and get background info on any given citizen within seconds.

It does not stop at facial or voice recognition, the latest development within surveillance tech is said to explore the possibility of ­interpreting body language to foresee felonies that are about to happen – an eerie ­realization of the plot from the 2002 movie “Minority Report” in which people are prematurely sentenced for a crime they have yet to commit. Also – when China says it is “exploring possibilities” it basically means it is up and running already.

So, why do the people of China agree to all this? The answer is almost too simple. They value safety higher than privacy. Research shows that when choosing a work place the young generation of China wants safety and secure employment. The one-child policy led to a generation referred to as the “Little Emperors”, which in short is a whole generation growing up with parents with an increased purchasing power and four grandparents having the one child as their main ­priority. The result is a highly spoilt generation used to being taken care of, with a family of elders wanting nothing but security and safety for their golden child.

The CPC is very skilled at making sure the citizens know that everything they do aims to ensure people’s safety. During Xi Jinping’s speech at the 2018 National People’s Congress in Beijing, he said that the CPC will keep absolute leadership over the armed forces with the goal of building a strong army. At an Interpol conference recently he stated that “Chinese society is stable and orderly, people happily live and work in peace,” and that “more and more people believe China is one of the world’s safest countries”.

Aim for increased collaboration

So, when the second largest economy in the world has the biggest population on Earth under its thumb, what does that mean for the global balance? Perhaps the West should be a bit less in awe of China’s technology development and instead of trying to copy it, find ways where AI won’t lead to total population control, but rather increased collaboration and less distance between countries and the people of the world. Because rest assured – where the West will be in another fifty years of tech development is where China is going to be in ten.

Stop typing, start talking

Stop typing, start talking

Machine learning and AI are fundamentally changing the way we interact with our computers. Perhaps the best interface will be no interface. Let’s just talk.

“It’s part of the human condition to think that if we struggle to use something, we assume that the problem resides with us,” said Jonathan Ive, Apple’s chief design officer. The best type of user interfaces are the simplest ones, the ones that work intuitively and doesn’t require much analysis on our parts, but adapt to our ever-changing needs. This insight uncovers a hidden reality of using computers: we have to adapt to their behavior. We learn their foibles, they don’t learn ours. But perhaps we’re getting closer to the ideal user experience – no interface at all. Chatbots and voice are still at their very beginning. But everything points towards that we will be talking a lot more in the future.

“We are going from talking through messaging apps to chatting to machines”

Computing paradigms change every 10 to 15 years; they’re typically defined by how they operate with the outside world – meaning we have to change with them. The first computers purely operated via command-line (or text) input. They required linguistic skills of a precision that the Academie Française would have been proud of. The graphical interface (GUI), pioneered by the Xerox Alto, popularized by the Mac and dominated by Microsoft Windows, took hold in the late 1980s. GUIs were more forgiving visualizing everyday metaphors like files and folders on a color screen. This is the computing most of us know. Multi-touch computing, pioneered by the Apple Iphone, was a third revolution, point and draw with your finger, what could be simpler? The Iphone fundamentally changed the way we interacted with technology, our expectations, because the whole screen became a playing field.

Chat is natural

Smartphones, in turn, paved the way for the rise of messaging apps. We now have countless ways of contacting each other, whether it’s on Imessage, Whatsapp, Messenger, Slack, Skype or Wechat. And since it makes sense for companies to try to talk to us, using the same channels we use to talk to one another – chat and chatbots have received a lot of hype – becoming, you might say, our latest interface. The reasons are clear: chat is natural and we spend a lot of time in chat applications. Turns out chatbots are also ludicrously easy to build. But it also turns out, building a great chatbot is a lot tougher than building a chatbot. If you’ve ever tried chatting with a chatbot you’ll know why; the conversation is dull and repetitive. God forbid you ask an original question only to be met with utter incomprehension.

So, we’re still pretty far from the ultimate interface, but no doubt, things are happening. Today, the technology is converging and leaps made in one field serve another. Natural language processing (NLP) enables chatbots, image recognition enables self-driving cars, voice recognition enables Alexa, Google Home, Siri. Those are all different branches of machine learning and we’re getting better and smarter at it, at an increasingly faster rate. A few companies are now starting to reach that level but we’re still in the early days. Yet, according to experts, by 2020, 85 percent of all customer interactions won’t require human customer service reps; indeed, those interactions will happen over chat, but also over voice.

We are going from talking to one another through messaging apps to chatting to ­machines. What’s the next step? Eliminate typing, and use your voice. Going back to the point on the importance of keeping user interfaces simple, voice is a big deal. To quote the epo­nymous book, the best UI is no UI. No design is required if you could simply talk to your device.

Today, voice AI such as Siri or Alexa, are limited by two things: technology and architecture. On the technology front, speech recognition and text recognition still have a lot of room for improvement, especially if your English is somewhat accented. (Fun experiment, ask Siri to “Google Tchaikovsky” for you with a French accent, you’ll get surprising results.) Their architecture is based on general themes, the AI is able to draw context from the user’s request, classify it and answer it accordingly. What it has a hard time doing however, is to follow a conversation, remember pieces of information mentioned three questions back and use it when needed. There’s no dropping birthday gifts hints with Alexa.  But thanks to the millions of users that interact with it regularly, the AI is getting plenty of training and gradually getting better.

A voice AI good enough for us to freely chat with would be extremely liberating: no more staring at your screen constantly, just chat with your AI, how cool does that sound? Nevertheless, voice AI raises some really challenging UX problems. How do you teach your users to use an interface which is actually invisible?  What will be the standard keywords to which Voice AI will respond to and who will set them?

We know the world is changing

Can Voice ever be good enough to be totally unscripted, feel as seamless as talking to a fellow human? The answer to this question is more a matter of belief, than it is hard science. We cannot anticipate the changes that will happen with the exponential development in tech and what we will be able to do. For now, a “Her”-like society is definitely science fiction.

What is very real, however, is the short-term impact voice and chatbots will have on the way businesses interact with their customers. Indeed, 32 percent of executives say voice is the most widely used AI technology in their business. Six billion connected devices will proactively ask for support by 2018. By the end of 2018, customer digital assistants will recognize customers by face and voice across channels and partners. HSBC has already implemented voice recognition as a secure access to one’s banking details.

We all know that the world is changing and it’s changing faster than ever. Not that long ago we were all going nuts about tactile screens – “it works without buttons!” – and now we live in a time in which soon all homes in developed countries will be equipped with voice AI devices to facilitate and organize our lives. And where businesses will interact with their customers in a way that is barely invented yet.