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The rise of the machines: How AI can transform our lives

roundtable

Tech City News held a roundtable attended by a variety of AI experts, who discussed the potential of AI and the ethical challenges posed by the technology. Yessi Bello Perez, our reporter, has more.

Just last year, Stephen Hawking – arguably one of the world’s brightest minds – predicted artificially intelligent computers would overtake humans at some point over the next century.

Although it may have seemed like an outlandish statement at the time, the truth is that since Hawking’s appearance at the Zeitgeist conference in London, artificial intelligence has reached buzzword status among the highest echelons of the global tech scene.

AI-focused investors have emerged, funding in the space is soaring, tech giants are acquiring AI startups – and pouring significant resources into researching the technology – and the community is avidly discussing the technology’s potential and its ethical implications.

What is AI?

Before embarking on the road to discovery and attempting to discern whether AI will take our jobs or improve our quality of life, it’s important to define the technology and what is getting in the way of mass adoption.

“When we talk about AI, most people think about a robot, but they don’t think that Siri on the iPhone is artificial intelligence,” said Alison Vincent, CTO at Cisco, during the Tech City News roundtable.

Vincent is right. There was a time when AI seemed like something out of a science-fiction blockbuster. Today, and thanks to the likes of Apple and other tech giants, the technology is available at everyone’s fingertips, embedded in consumer goods such as smartphones and tablets.

With more and more tech companies looking to leverage the technology, it is fair to say that we can expect our interaction with AI to increase in the near future. But where does its potential really lie?

AI and music

AI has already created a buzz of excitement among medical and financial services professionals; with doctors using it to diagnose patients and analysts leveraging it to fight and detect fraud.

Ed Rex, founder and CEO of Jukedeck, believes the technology also shows a lot of promise in the music space.

His startup, based on state-of-the-art tech that combines AI and music composition, seeks to produce a system able to write original music tracks according to users’ specifications; essentially meaning the music can be customised at the touch of a button.

Rex, who plays various instruments and enjoyed a stint as Dizzie Rascal’s backing singer, is quick to point out AI has been creating waves in music for some time, albeit if only on the consumer side.

“So much has already been done with AI. For example, helping consumers get recommendations on Spotify,” he said, noting the technology’s progress in the business side of music has been hindered by the debate over machines’ ability to think creatively.

Historically, computers have been known to excel in well-structured areas of problem solving such as logic or algebra, but many in the field now feel they will struggle to formulate creative thoughts – thus creating a huge challenge for AI’s potential progress in the music industry.

“Some people think that creativity cannot be emulated in machines, but I am convinced that it can,” Rex added.

According to him, it’s important to perceive music as a combination of different layers and not as a “perfectly” finished product. By doing this, Rex said, it’ easier to see how AI can be applied throughout the various stages of the production process.

“We can do things with AI on different levels. Mixing can happen purely automatically and AI can do it,” he claimed.

Although it may take a while for artificial intelligence to disrupt the music industry, Rex’s claim seems a little less ludicrous in light of Google’s latest announcement, which has seen the tech giant teach its deep learning technology to write short novels.

If computers are eventually going to be able to write creatively, they could also be able to partake in – or dominate – the music production process. And if this is the case, will consumers be able to distinguish the work of a human from that of a machine?

Franck Fourniol, a science policy advisor at the Royal Society, doesn’t think so. “There will come a time when you and I won’t be able to assert what’s been written by a machine or a human,” he said.

This, it seems, is still a long way off. We need to get to the point, Rex claims, where humans are able to converse freely with machines. “It is at that point that you have real AI,” he added.

Disrupting healthcare

Gary Mudie, CTO and COO of babylon, a London-based HealthTech startup, which is reportedly looking to roll-out a Siri inspired voice recognition interface later this year, believes the technology needs to advance further in order to truly disrupt healthcare.

“Companies are using AI to synthesise the impact of new drugs and they are making really good progress with that,” he said.

If recent estimates by Frost & Sullivan are anything to go by, Mudie’s company is on the right track. Earlier this year, the consulting firm predicted AI in healthcare would see a “dramatic market expansion” in the next couple of years, with the potential to decrease the cost of medical treatments by half across the board.

With this in mind, CB Insights has compiled research identifying companies that are already applying elements of machine learning and predictive analytics to reduce drug discovery times, provide virtual assistance to patients and diagnose ailments by processing medical images.

However, despite the industry’s adoption of the technology gearing in the right direction, the CTO said he would like to see the emergence of ‘super AI’ – where machines are able to mirror and surpass human intelligence – across the sector. This, he added, would prove the extent to which the technology could make an impact on the industry as a whole.

Investing in AI

According to CB Insights, deal activity in AI almost doubled in the last quarter of 2015, with startups raising an aggregate of $967m in funding in the past six years. Nathan Benaich, an investor at Playfair Capital, said artificial intelligence’s application in the first wave was prominent across the AdTech and FinTech sectors.

AI could help advertisers target consumers with more relevant ads and the technology’s potential to disrupt the risk-averse financial services sector is huge on many different levels; particularly when it comes to fraud and risk detection.

In terms of investment trends, Benaich explained he’d noticed a “frenzy of financing companies with smart people”.

“Most investments are made in B2B solutions in either FinTech and AdTech … what the investment trend really shows is that it is very important to have a core product that people want to use,” he added.

Also speaking from experience was Alice Bentick, co-founder of London-based Entrepreneur First (EF), who spoke about the excitement created by Google’s acquisition of DeepMind in 2014 and noted a lot of the AI companies on EF’s books were also B2B and enterprise facing.

Competing with the giants

Acquisitions in the space may be a testament to tech giants’ interest in AI, but how can startups compete against the more established, and resource rich, tech firms?

“Being able to access data is key,” said Bentick. “Every company has data sets, it’s about startups being able to access them, and if startups can do so, I think they have a great opportunity.”

As the founder of a startup, Rex claimed smaller firms such as Jukedeck were at a disadvantage when it came to competing against the likes of Google, especially when it came to hiring talent.

That’s not all. Startups are also competing with big, non-tech orientated corporates. Raza Salim, strategic transformation leader at Barclays, spoke about the way in which banks were dealing with competition from smaller – and perhaps more agile – incumbents such as startups and scaleups.

“We want to do what we can in-house but there is an issue with us not being able to do it to the same level as startups. It’s about trying to get the balance right between the two,” he noted.

Why the UK?

Often compared to Silicon Valley and the impressive list of tech companies emerging from the San Francisco Bay area, the UK has produced several renowned AI startups, some of which have been snapped up by Google and IBM.

Why is the UK such a great place for AI businesses to flourish? The answer, it seems, is the country’s strong research tradition, nurtured by a network of some of the world’s top universities and academics.

Julie Wall, a senior lecturer at the University of East London said: “London is now becoming comparable with San Francisco. Universities are producing top quality students that want to work in startups, they don’t want the average programming job.”

The UK has a lot to offer in terms of the raw skills required to continue advancing AI across the broad range of sectors that it can potentially transform.

“We’re very good at engineering,” Benainch said, before noting that entrepreneurial culture in the UK needed to catch up with that of the US.

“The biggest difference between the UK and the US is that over there they make you think that you can go and start a company. In the UK, university is much more about nailing your exams,” Rex added.

Outside of London, participants noted Edinburgh and Cambridge were also notable players in the UK’s emerging AI scene.

Ethical implications

With artificial intelligence catching on so quickly, it is no surprise that many players in the tech industry are starting to ponder the societal ethical implications posed by the technology.

“We will probably want to use machines to help us do our jobs and they will probably have a strong effect on our lives and the way they work. There’s a need to work hand-in-hand,” he said.

In reference to self-driving cars and the automation of transport, Vincent added: “Many jobs will be replaced. Don’t bother becoming a pilot or a taxi driver.”

Although many have typically defended that more creative jobs, such as hairdressing, would remain unaltered by the “rise of the machines”, others such as Rex, believe that if super AI will emerge, most jobs will be endangered.

“If we don’t think about this, we’re completely screwed. What does a world where there are fewer jobs look like? How do we plan for that eventuality?” added Rex, urging the AI community to speak up and discuss the ethical questions surrounding the widespread use of the technology.

“I think it is really important for the AI community to be frank about what the technology can achieve. It can be really tempting to draw the line and ignore it, but if we don’t start considering the facts and realise that quite a few jobs will be taken, we’re in trouble,” he said.

“Even governments can’t react quickly enough,” said Dr Mark Smith, CEO of Contact Engine.

In a statement similar to that made by Hawking last year, Bentick concluded that super artificial intelligence will emergence, and when it does, it will happen so quickly that we, as a society, will never be sufficiently prepared.

We’re yet to see whether Hawking’s prediction comes to fruition; whether AI will help us drive efficiency or if the rise of the machines will render us all unemployed. All these questions remain but they need to be addressed, and fast.

This article first appeared on the 11th edition of Tech City News’ popular tech magazine, which focused on the topic of artificial intelligence. You can read the magazine online here. Subscribe to receive future editions delivered to your door for free.