After years in the labs, artificial intelligence (AI) is being unleashed at last. Google, Microsoft and Facebook have all made their own AI APIs open source in recent months, while IBM has opened Watson (pictured above) for business and Amazon has purchased AI startup Orbeus. These announcements have not drawn much media attention, but are hugely significant.
„In the long run, I think we will evolve in computing from a mobile-first world to an AI-first world,“ says Google CEO Sundar Pichai. What does the appearance of AI bots and machine learning on the open market mean for business, IT, big data, and for sellers of physical hardware?
What’s happening to the major AI platforms?
The AI APIs now opening up are essentially free platforms on which companies can build incredibly powerful analytics tools. „These hugely powerful tools, used, developed and backed by the world’s most advanced technology companies, are now available to anyone with the skills to use them,“ says Matt Jones, Senior Analytics Project Manager at analytics and data science company Tessella.
He continues: „Using these toolkits, individually or combined, anyone can integrate transformational AI or machine learning platforms – which are as sophisticated as anything currently on the market – to their business on a pay as you go, or free basis.“ The tech industry – and digital business in general – is on the cusp of something very big.
Google, Microsoft and Facebook
It may have announced plans for its Google Home speaker-assistant to rival Amazon’s Echo in ’smart‘ homes, but the search engine giant has much bigger plans for AI. Part of Google since January 2014, DeepMind’s AlphaGo neural network beat mankind at the ancient Chinese game of Go recently. DeepMind is the main attraction on TensorFlow a deep learning framework that Google made open source in 2015.
Meanwhile, Facebook is focused on developing its M bot platform that should see its Messenger app flooded with third-party apps that let companies and their customers execute tasks on the platform, such as paying bills, making bank transfers, and even ordering an Uber ride. The Facebook M virtual assistant will follow.
And over at Redmond, Microsoft Cognitive Services and the Microsoft Bot Framework is aimed at getting developers to create AI-powered apps and bots that work on everything from Skype and Office 365 to Slack and SMS.
Watson on the cloud
The existence and planned expansion of IBM’s cloud-based cognitive computing platform is well known, and Big Blue offers its Watson API on a ‚freemium‘ basis.
Around 80,000 developers have accessed the Watson collection of APIs since 2013 through a dedicated cloud platform that IBM is calling ’self-service artificial intelligence‘. It’s designed to help coders, data scientists and analysts create apps that tap into the power of the Watson supercomputer for prediction, natural language processing, and much more. Machine learning and text analytics will also soon be on the menu from IBM’s Watson Knowledge Studio.
While some invest in AI, others are making acquisitions to catch up. While IBM’s Watson has a new Visual Recognition API and Google’s image recognition is well known, Apple recently purchased ‚emotion measurement‘ (i.e. face recognition) company Emotient. Meanwhile, Amazon bought a deep learning neural networks startup called Orbeus, whose ReKognition API specialises in photo recognition, too.
Open season for developers
With the arrival on the cloud of high-power cognitive platforms, it’s open season for app developers, who are expected to use the fruits of AI to unleash better and better apps.
„IBM Watson, Google DeepMind and the like are incredibly high-power cognitive platforms that are enabling developers to do really interesting projects,“ says Frank Palermo, Executive Vice President of Global Digital Solutions at global IT services company VirtusaPolaris. „It’s great they are now making these cognitive platforms readily accessible – particularly for researchers and others scientific pursuits, but also for knowledge workers across all industries.“
For instance, the boom in online education could create AI-powered teachers, which could help improve retention rates.
What is the OpenAI project?
Elon Musk is getting involved in AI, too, by supporting OpenAI, a non-profit research company focused on advancing digital intelligence for the common good. „Elon Musk has launched the OpenAI project with a star-studded list of backers – Palantir CEO Peter Thiel, LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman and Y Combinator president Sam Altman,“ says an impressed Jones.
OpenAI is headed up by machine learning expert Ilya Sutskever, ex-Google Brain Team member, and has just opened the OpenAI Gym in beta to help developers working with ‚reinforced learning‘, a type of machine learning that’s central to AI. Essentially, it’s about getting software to alter its behaviour in a dynamic environment in order to get a reward (you can’t give Siri a biscuit every time she ‚found this on the web‘).
What does this mean for the IT industry?
The arrival of AI means a changing of the guard in the tech industry, with disruption, innovation – and the complete domination of the cloud. Standalone data analytics platforms? No need. Expensive infrastructure? Ditto. Expertise, not investment, will become king. That, and superfast broadband.
„It will ultimately help to drive innovation and growth, and we could see new business models emerge,“ says Palermo, who thinks that Amazon’s entry into the AI market is especially interesting given the unbridled success of Amazon’s AWS.
„As with cloud before it, Amazon may start renting time on Orbeus by the hour so that knowledge workers can work on a specific project,“ he adds. „This will help to normalise the use of AI and cognitive capabilities and greatly enhance our ability to process information.“ However, reshaping computing does mean some pain-points.
The death of the black box
You need computing power and analytics? AI APIs have the answer. „Any task currently performed by a costly black box AI platform, such as identifying where to drill for oil, predicting disease outbreaks, optimising scientific experiments to develop new products, and predictive maintenance, can now be done in-house,“ says Jones. Crucially, a business using these AI APIs will maintain complete control and oversight of its data.
How disruptive could AI APIs be?
Very. The kind of expertise most companies – especially startups – only dreamed of will be available instantly, online, 24/7. Accessing the world’s most advanced computers via these open platforms will cost only the price of a data scientist’s salary or consultancy fee. „This is very important for a lot of the world’s businesses, and they need to take it seriously,“ says Jones. „If its true potential is realised, it will unleash a new generation of innovative startups that apply the latest AI techniques to disrupt the establishment.“
The intelligent future
For industries already migrating to the cloud at an alarming rate, AI raises the stakes even further. We already inhabit a world where the cloud’s scalable storage has enabled startups like Twitter, Spotify, Netflix and WhatsApp to challenge entrenched big players. By making the very latest AI open source and available to all online, the likes of Google, Facebook, Amazon and IBM could help create a new wave of businesses that harness data. That puts data analytics platforms, pricey IT infrastructure and storage devices on borrowed time.