It's "Go Time" in the Artificial Intelligence Swimming Pool

It’s a funny thing writing about the Future of Work: the future is, well ... always in "the future".

As we wrote about in The Work Ahead: Mastering the Digital Economy:

AI skeptics have long relied on the old saw
that AI is just a few years away ... and has
been for decades. Don’t buy into that
dismissiveness or denial any longer.

Should anyone still be skeptical, the recent MIT Review EmTech Digital Conference in San Francisco should lay that notion to rest.

First of all, the MIT team are masters at assembling the right mix at the right time to give a big picture of “where we are” and “where we’re going”. And what’s abundantly clear is that AI is here -- right now! -- and it's out of the lab, and – with apologies to Mr. DeMille – AI is “ready for its close up”.

In short: it’s “go-time” in the big pool that is AI.

But it also prompted many questions as well: How do you feel about a drone following you around all over the place? The driverless car is cool, but is the name of the game Otto in the future of trucking? If your dad is sick with prostate cancer, do you want the AI doctor that can see thousands of times deeper than a 6-layer Gleason test developed from only 200 subjects from the 1960s? How much privacy are we willing to forgo in the name of artificial intelligence? Is musical AI that’s “more Bach than Bach” a good thing or a bad thing? And most importantly – what to do when machines do everything? Hey that sounds like the title of a book...

Here’s a sampling of the zeitgeist, and a pretty good idea why commingling of the swim-lanes in the big lake that is AI might lead to the discovery of some of the coolest breakthroughs in centuries. Fourth industrial revolution, indeed:

  • Natural language processing is everywhere. Does “speech-as-a-platform” actually enhance or ERODE literacy rates? In a future world soaked in NLP, who needs readin’ and ‘ritin’?
  • Is “voice as a platform” actually the ne plus ultra of A.I.? Ergonomically, who – really – wants to go around gibbering in their own bubble? Mister Carson speaking into the Downton Abbey phone for the first time comes to mind...
  • When it comes to general AI (like Hawking and Musk fear), others like Gary Marcus (and Andrew Ng) are skeptical: “We’re closer to reaching Alpha Centauri than general AI.” So forget fearing SkyNet – what if A.I. development stalls in a “Dark Age”?
  • Nature’s already a pretty damn good “neural net” programmer: Case in point -- look at a dog versus the level of programming needed by Boston Scientific robots to do the same thing (hint: we’re not there yet)...
  • Or consider that a kid doesn't need to see thousands of pictures of an elephant to know it's an elephant (you can almost hear the AI bots categorizing at all known photos of Chihuahuas vs. blueberry muffins howling in protest).
  • What if driverless trucks and cars could lead to reclaimed “High Line”-style parks in nearly half of city streets by the end of this century?
  • What if driverless cars really DO lead to the extinction of the traffic jam? Or the extinction of stoplights? Or stop signs?
  • Will driverless cars still allow for the “soft 10” (or 15) MPH over the speed limit? AI companies (and surely insurance companies and their rate structures next) are already talking about “Grandma Mode” vs. “Vin Diesel Mode”.
  • IBM’s put quantum computing tutorials in the cloud with IBM Q. I sure hope the Bad Guys (North Korea, ISIS, etc.) don’t haven’t found out.
  • Noah Goodman from Stanford predicts that we’re about to (re)build an entire civilization on AI -- and we don't really know what it will do. But hopefully it doesn’t fall down...
  • How fast will it take the Mt. Sinai “Deep Patient” AI (developed on Nvidia technologies) to unlock the logjam of data tied up in all EMRs everywhere?
  • Pedro Domingo blew minds by reminding everyone that “evolution created your brain, but YOU fired your own synapses to make it learn”. Is AI like discovering fire again, or is it the ultimate Russian Doll of evolution?
  • What if you could tell a simple story (“The big fat cat sat on the mat...”) to an AI platform via NLP and it could rough out 90% of an animated storyboard? Something tells me there’d still room for Hiyao Miyazaki and Pete Docter.
  • While seemingly cool initially, a drone cameraman that follows you around to capture you sweet ski flip starts to look positively terrifying upon repeated viewing (especially when the humans try to hide from it).
  • Can Google Magenta be “the Les Paul” of creative AI tools? Les initially wanted a way to make acoustic guitars a little louder, and within a decade, Hendrix actually used flaws like feedback, and started turning his axe upside down to reach an apex of creativity in rock. But what happens when AI allows us to “more Bach than Bach”? (Hey, that rhymes!)
  • While it’s comforting to know ethicists are already running “red Team/Blue Team” scenarios to proactively confront AI catastrophes, is A.I. so dangerous that it should be put on par with nuclear power at the transnational level?

My take? It’s clear that extremely deep minds, thinkers and entrepreneurs are well past the starting gun going off, and have splashed headlong into the AI pool to start the race. But I think the winners will avoid “staying within their swim lane” of one specific AI discipline – whatever it may be. The winners will take an expansive view, and envision AI for what it is: a much broader pool, or a lake, or an ocean of new possibilities in the future of work. The best of them will see outside their swim lane, and, with apologies to the good folks at IFTTT, will win “if I take my thing, and smush it with their thing, and overlay the smart canvas of THAT thing... then we have an amazing shot at doing THIS thing”.

The best ideas in Silicon Valley were born – and discovered – from such thinking. Consider that Zuckerberg wouldn’t be “ZUCKERBERG” until Facebook went beyond being a dorm-sharing device at Harvard, and (along with Snapchat, Instagram, etc.) effectively became “the great maw” that devoured all the digital pictures generated from the ubiquity of cameras in a world ruled by the iPhone. (And disrupted grannies’ dusty photo albums everywhere – and the scrap-booking industry too... remember when that was “a thing”?)

From your kids’ bedside Amazon Echo, to the face-recognition engine on social media, to a doctor saving your life through fractal-like radiology technologies, that’s the pool we’re walking into. Some really cool companies are diving off the high-dive and into the deep end at the same time. It will fuel the future of work. Are you ready for a swim?