“What is artificial intelligence (AI), and what is it not?”
At The Economist Events’ Innovation Summit, I joined author and University of Washington professor Pedro Domingos, Walmart’s head of AI and Customer Technology Fiona Tan, and moderator and The Economist technology editor Alexandra Bass. We tackled the biggest questions about AI and its impact on the world. We agreed that while AI is a moving target, seven revelations are true today and will extend into the future.
1. Artificial Intelligence Is Invisible—And Everywhere
Fiona shared a great analogy during the panel. She explained that AI is like plumbing. It is all around us, but we do not think about it. Nearly everything consumers use today—an app to outsmart traffic or buying concert tickets via a digital assistant—is AI. We just don’t call it that.
2. Big Data Makes AI Real
Thirty years ago, a self-driving car could run for 30 seconds. Soon, it will run for six months or more without interference. What changed? The cloud’s ability to process, store and gather data exponentially grows compute capacity, enabling us to unlock the combined power of big data and AI. In essence, this data and our ability to harness insights and actions drives, as John McCarthy predicted over 60 years ago, the “AI of today,” from machine learning and predictive analytics to the ubiquity of chatbots. We cannot even imagine the innovations that will come from this in the future.
3. AI Is the New IoT Is the New Big Data
We must be careful about calling this “the year of AI” and then moving quickly to the next trend. Only a few months ago, the internet of things (IoT) made the headlines. Now, big data is called AI. Does that mean big data is dead? Technology is accelerating so quickly that lines are blurring. When IoT and AI come together, we will see things never thought possible. But trying to put a label on it today is futile.
4. AI Is Not What You See in Movies
The Hollywood version of AI happens about one percent of the time. The best AI use cases are not glamorous, such as powering low-visibility operations in the back office or predictive analytics. While this will never make it to the big screen, predictive analytics make our customers’ lives easier, helping us better understand and anticipate their needs. Ultimately, this will translate into billions in revenue and happier customers.
5. AI Will Help Us Give Customers What They Do Not Want
I loved Fiona’s story about how Walmart uses AI to better the experience for their online-only customers who do not like to shop. This is a valuable lesson for any industry. AI will help us learn what a customer wants and does not want, enabling every industry to continuously course-correct. It’s walking the walk of being close to the customer and close to the business, and everybody wins.
6. AI, Automation and the Washing Machine
For years, I tried to get my dad to buy a washing machine. He never believed it would get the clothes as clean as washing them by hand. Finally, he broke down and bought one, wondering why he waited all those years. Intelligent automation requires the same kind of mindset shift.
Machine learning automates functions that we have been offshoring for many years. AI enables us to come full circle, re-igniting the need for engineering talent while putting the “T” back in “IT.” That said, Pedro reminded us that we need to get to a state where AI is mature enough to be plug-and-play. The democratization of AI is the goal.
7. People Are More Important Than Ever
New technology like AI is great, but people are still the most important resources in any company. The quickest way to rebrand yourself as an AI company is hiring only AI specialists. You might get a few fast results, but you have also created a caste system between the “cool AI kids” and the rest of the company. It is difficult but wiser in the end to transform intelligently, honoring the values and culture already in place.
Watch the artificial intelligence panel conversation between Bask, Pedro, Fiona and Alex at The Economist Innovation Summit.