The enterprise, as always, is at the forefront of virtually all the multiple technology revolutions taking place today. From Big Data and the Internet of Things to virtual infrastructure and digital business processes, IT is driving the transformation from old-style systems and infrastructure to highly available, highly intelligent applications and services.
But sometimes it helps to stop for a moment and see where all this is headed and what work, and life, would be like if all of these developments come to fruition. To my mind, the most consequential advancements are coming in the areas of the IoT and artificial intelligence. How, exactly, will the world function once it has access to a global, interconnected computing environment that touches every device on the planet? And what are the ramifications of giving this thing the ability to learn?
According to Daniel Newman, CEO of Broadsuite Media Group, artificial intelligence has already infiltrated the IoT to a significant degree. Not only are analytics engines utilizing cognitive software and intelligent algorithms to convert raw data into knowledge, but a new wave of intelligent applications, such as chatbots, is poised to drive intelligence to every connected device on the planet. And if much of the actual processing of all this data is to take place on the edge, as many expect, the vast majority of this thinking will be “fast and uninhibited,” as in, not subject to human oversight.
What this means is that not only will we soon find ourselves surrounded by smart devices at home, at work and in between, but there will also be a global cognitive learning environment overseeing it all. In the words of Huawei co-CEO Ken Hu, this entity will act as "a digital brain [that] will evolve in real time, and it will never age, providing intelligence that can be called upon at any time by people and machines via high-speed connections and devices." Images of SkyNet aside, it is hard to see how a development of this magnitude won’t have a significant impact on our long-standing legal, political and cultural relationships. When a smart car crashes, who’s responsible? The owner, the manufacturer, the programmer or someone else? What if we wind up not with one digital brain but multiple brains, and they start conflicting with each other?
And it’s not like we have a whole lot of time to discuss these issues, either. Artificial intelligence is one of the hottest growth areas in venture capital circles these days, according to Singularity HUB, more than 200 startups have already gobbled up $1.5 million this year, which is on pace to eclipse 2015’s $2.4 billion haul. Developments range from advanced hardware solutions like Alphabet’s tensor processing unit (TPU) and IBM’s TrueNorth neuromorphic computing platform to database algorithms supplemented with deep learning and hierarchical pattern recognition capabilities. And these tools are already making their way to applications like Microsoft’s Cortana and Amazon’s Echo.
There has been plenty of doom and gloom regarding the rise of AI and its potential to wipe out the human race in the blink of an eye, but it’s important to keep some perspective here. The tech industry uses terms like “intelligence” and “learning” because these are the closest descriptions we have for the way these systems operate. A smart car will be able to adapt to new information only to the limit of its programming and underlying hardware. It actually has less intelligence than a fruit fly, and it certainly is not going to careen off a bridge one day because it’s mad at its owner or it has suddenly decided that life as a smart car is no longer worth living.
But if we are to be surrounded by a giant “brain” that inhabits virtually everything around us, it is reasonable to assume that at some point this adaptive, organic presence will start to grow and change in ways that are not entirely expected. By then, we humans will have come to rely on it a great deal, and if the changes are not necessarily to our liking we may or may not be able to implement an effective change.
A world in which humans may have to live according to the whims of an artificial intelligence that, in actuality, is still pretty dumb? That would be strange indeed.
Arthur Cole writes about infrastructure for IT Business Edge.