Artificial Intelligence Will Redefine the World

How big of a deal is artificial intelligence? Microsoft researcher James McCaffrey explains AI's origins and why we can expect profound effects from it.

No doubt you've heard (or read) quite a lot about artificial intelligence (AI) lately. Some herald it is as a business and technology revolution, while others, notably Elon Musk, view it as an existential threat to humanity.

Of course, the truth lies somewhere in between, and most of us have yet to even experience AI in a substantive way. Last month at Interop ITX, we sat down with James McCaffrey, a senior research scientist at Microsoft Research and expert on neural networks, to talk about what exactly AI means and where it is heading.

According to McCaffrey, AI and associated technologies like machine learning and deep learning are nothing new. These concepts have been around many years and grew from traditional statistical analysis techniques. While machine learning analyzes data in order to make decisions, deep learning is more complex and where much of the activity is happening today. That's largely because of two recent advancements that helped it take off: The amount of available raw computer processing increased, and clever new algorithms on the research side emerged.

McCaffrey gave the example of speech recognition, which appeared in the 1990s but had largely plateaued. In 2014, computing power and algorithms suddenly came together to make deep learning applications like Siri and Cortana possible.

Expanding on these concepts, AI is a broader term that usually represents an activity normally associated to human beings, said McCaffrey, like vision, hearing, speech production, and cognition. Cognition, or the ability to understand and apply what is being learned, is at the crux of AI. These capabilities are still in progress, said McCaffrey, but advancing rapidly.

The growth of IA is also dovetailing with the emergence of Internet of Things applications, creating a hotbed of possibilities McCaffrey finds especially intriguing. Machine learning requires reams of data to process results, and the spread of IoT provides ever-increasing sources of sensor data that can be collected and aggregated. The sensors themselves are becoming able to perform machine learning, allowing them to learn on their own and communicate with each other.

In the end, how will AI affect us? McCaffrey agrees with Mark Cuban and other prognosticators who are betting on AI as the biggest business opportunity of the current generation. He compares it to the early days of the Internet, when everyone knew the World Wide Web was a turning point in technology, yet even its advocates underestimated the impact it would have on society and everyday life. In the same way, AI will create profound changes, but exactly what form those will take and how AI intertwines itself with businesses and our personal lives is yet to be determined.

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