Artificial Intelligence, Real Change.

Alistair Fairweather, Technology Consultant & Thought Leader, PlainSpeak

It's pretty cool to be living in the future. Voice recognition, 3D printing and self-driving cars were science fiction just 20 years ago but are now reality. Now the next wave of technology, particularly artificial intelligence and robotics, is poised to change the world in dramatic and unpredictable ways.

Although artificial intelligence (AI) has been around in some form virtually since the dawn of computing, it has recently breached an important threshold in development. An example of this in action is the defeat of Lee Se-dol, the world's top Go player, by Google's AlphaGo bot.

Go is an ancient Japanese game played on a board with 361 spaces (compared to 64 in chess). Although the rules are simple, the number of possible moves that must be considered mean a single game of Go can take 6 hours or more.

From a pure computing perspective, Go is trillions upon trillions of times more complex than Chess. So while computers have been beating chess grandmasters since the 1990s, Go remained practically unsolvable. There is not enough computing power on earth to crunch through all the possible moves in a game of Go within a human lifespan.

Instead, Google approached it from an entirely new direction. They programmed their bot - technically a "deep neural network” (DNN) - to scan through data from tens of millions of games of Go and literally learn how best to play the game.

This means that the team behind AlphaGo did not need to understand how to beat Lee Se-dol. It just needed enough good data to feed into its learning machine and a target at which to point it.

If a system can learn how to outperform humans at something as complex and intuitive as a game of Go, think of the thousands of other practical applications for that technology. It's only a matter of time before bots will be able to do your taxes, plan your schedule and order your groceries.

But that incredible potential has a dark side. Office jobs in the service industries are currently safe from automation, unlike manufacturing which has been decimated by automation in most developed countries. But now AI could replace millions of these jobs at a stroke.

According to research by the International Labour Organisation, nearly 1.5 billion people currently work in the service sector. Even if only 1% of these jobs are replaced by automation, that's 15 million people out of work. Low-level clerical jobs in process driven fields like accounting and actuarial science are particularly at risk but in time even fields like law, medicine, and engineering will come under pressure.

Sounds ridiculous, right? Except that a "robot lawyer" in the UK has already successfully appealed traffic fines worth millions of dollars. Objection, your honour!

For marketing professionals, this new wave brings both threats and opportunities. Fields like analytics, media buying and performance optimisation already tend towards automation. We should expect that trend to accelerate rapidly. If a big chunk of your billings comes from interpreting data for your clients, or from tinkering with the performance of ads, you will need to shift your business to add value elsewhere.

The same applies to social media and customer service management. An AI bot would be able to answer customers on Facebook or Twitter in real-time and learn which responses get the best results. The same bot could warn you about trends or spikes in complaints.

But from great threats come great opportunities. A new crop of start-ups focused on the next generation of marketing automation will spring up in the next 3 to 5 years. There's no reason you can't be a part of that crop. This could be as big as the Internet boom in the 1990s or the social media boom of the 2000s.

And there are still many areas in which computers simply cannot compete. Creativity and imagination, in all their forms, are still solid defensible positions in a market overrun by automation. A computer can place your adverts for you, and optimise their yields, but it cannot write compelling copy or craft a beautiful logo. At least not yet.

Physical robotics is another field that is finally reaching a level of maturity that makes it practical for use by the general public. Humanoid robots are already greeting and directing visitors to some shopping centres in Japan.

The Atlas, developed by Boston Dynamics, is designed to aid in search and rescue missions. This 6-foot tall humanoid robot can already perform tasks like removing debris blocking an entrance or connecting a fire hose to a water source.

If artificial intelligence is the brains of a system, then these robots are the bodies. When combined, these technologies have the potential to completely disrupt industries that have remained largely untouched by technology up to now. How far are we from a robot that can lay bricks or measure and cut timber? What about a robot waiter or sales assistant?

Together AI and robotics will create entirely new opportunities to reach customers and tell compelling brand stories. How about a fleet of robots owned by your local supermarket that do your grocery shopping for you while recommending this week's bargains from top brands? Or a robotic pharmacist that informs customers about generic alternatives to their medication?

Right now we're on the cusp of a new industrial revolution. That's exciting and pregnant with possibility, but also full of risk. Just as in the first industrial revolution, there will be winners and losers, and the global economy may take decades to get back to an equilibrium.

But what history has proved over and over again is that short-term disruptions are rewarded with long-term gains in prosperity. Our modern standard of living would not be possible without the mass production techniques developed during the first industrial revolution.

And the artisanal jobs that were destroyed by that revolution were replaced in time by better-paying jobs in the booming manufacturing sector. It also allowed entrepreneurs to start new, technology-based companies that broke the old monopolies of the guild system. Does that sound at all familiar?

Bottom line: for those with guts and energy, this is an incredibly exciting time to be alive. This kind of opportunity comes around perhaps once a generation. We should grab it with both hands.

This article is featured in the Technology edition of the quarterly Heavy Chef magazine. The magazine is available for download here.

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