The next time you fire app the Google Translate app on your smartphone and use it to make sense of a restaurant menu in a foreign country, don’t be surprised by the increased accuracy of the translation. Since November 15, Google Translate has switched from the previously used large-scale statistical machine translation to Neural Machine Translation, one of many possible applications of the booming field of artificial intelligence (AI), which is predicted to change the way we look at technology.
What the new version of Google Translate and most other current artificial intelligence systems have in common is the use of a method of data analysis called machine learning. In 1959, Arthur Samuel, an American pioneer in the field of computer gaming, artificial intelligence, and machine learning, have said that machine learning “gives computers the ability to learn without being explicitly programmed.”
If you really think about it, the most fundamental advantage a real translator has over a machine translation service is the capability to solve never before seen problems. A skilled an experienced translator will know how to deal with just about any sentence he or she encounters. Machines are now learning how to do the same, and they certainly don’t limit themselves to languages.
Machines Replacing Humans
Xero, a New Zealand-based software company that develops cloud-based accounting software, predicts that artificial intelligence and machine learning are set to transform the accounting profession. “AI and smart machine learning programs will be the next big thing, enabling automation to further disrupt the industry, and the role of the accountant,” explains Colin Timmis, Xero’s SA Head of Accounting. He goes on to say, “Machine learning could advance high integrity accounting, one of Xero’s key areas of focus, which is when data is not touched by human hands. Coding work would become completely automated and data entry would be redundant. Accountants will therefore have more time to focus on the business and developing growth strategies.”
Perhaps you still remember IBM’S Watson, the famous question-answering computer system that competed on Jeopardy! and received the first-place prize of $1 million. IBM has been continuing their work on artificial intelligence, developing a software program, Avicenna, capable of identifying anatomical features and abnormalities in medical images, such as CT scans, and using patients’ medical records to suggest possible diagnoses and treatments. Predictably, the medical community is already asking whether computers will replace radiologists.
Another timely example of automation and AI put into practice comes from Singapore, where the first six self-driving taxis have started picking up passengers. Their services are currently limited to a few pick-up and drop-off points within a 2.5-square-mile radius, but 178,000 American taxi drivers and chauffeurs and approximately 1.6 milliontruck drivers are already on edge.
Changing Views on Technology
Considering the previous examples of practical applications of artificial intelligence, it’s easy to start seeing it as an ominous cloud forming over humanity. Hundreds of millions of people could lose their job, entire professions could disappear or radically transform, and then there’s the question of how we will keep these intelligent systems under control. “Success in creating AI would be the biggest event in human history,” Stephen Hawking writes, “unfortunately, it might also be the last, unless we learn how to avoid the risks.”
For these reasons, it’s possible that we will see a revival of the Luddite movement, which railed against the economic fallout of the Industrial Revolution and opposed technology that, Luddites feared, would render workers obsolete.
But, as Stephen Hawking adds, “The potential benefits are huge; everything that civilization has to offer is a product of human intelligence; we cannot predict what we might achieve when this intelligence is magnified by the tools that AI may provide, but the eradication of war, disease, and poverty would be high on anyone’s list.” Indeed, a McKinsey & Company study predicts that driverless cars alone could lead to a crash rate reduction of up to 90 percent.
If humanity sees artificial intelligence and machine learning in this positive light, it will be much easier for the whole society to embrace the potential benefits, instead of living in fear. “Workers will likely need to find vocations involving more cognitively complex tasks that machines can’t touch,” reports Aki Ito. Others see universal basic income, a form of social security in which all citizens or residents of a country regularly receive an unconditional sum of money, as an effective method how to immunize against the undesirable effects of automation. Paradoxically, artificial intelligence and machine learning are exactly what could make the dream of a guaranteed basic income come true.
A Window to the Future
The upcoming years and decades will undoubtedly be a time of a radical cultural shift in our collective view on technology. What changes will these new technologies bring will depend on the companies who develop them and the attitude of people who will come in contact with them.