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Your New, Robotic Coworkers: How AI and Chatbots Will Transform Enterprises in 2017

November 9, 2016

It’s not powering the clear-torsoed fembots of 2015’s Ex Machina, or Haley Joel Osment’s creepy robotic surrogate child from A.I. — at least not yet. But after decades of anticipating the advent of “adult” robots, artificial intelligence is finally growing up and starting to get real jobs.

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AI Over the Years

The implementation of AI has been a slow and, at times, clunky process. We had ELIZA by 1966, but it wasn’t until three decades later — in 1997 —  that Deep Blue was able to beat chess champion Garry Kasparov. Fast-forward almost two more decades: my laptop just underlined “Gary” in red, because it knew that, despite G-A-R-Y being the far more common spelling, Kasparov’s first name has two Rs. Pretty remarkable.

And then there’s our dear friend Siri, who can show us where to get sushi, find a picture of Batman, or even tell us a story. But Siri, my laptop, Deep Blue, and Eliza all had this in common: they only did what they were programmed to do: recognize commands – be they typed, spoken, or digitally maneuvered across a chessboard made of 1s and 0s – and choosing from a large (but limited) sea of predetermined responses.

AI has continued to improve over a number of decades, to the point where the programs are getting increasingly better at passing the Turing test. So AI is progressing from the novelty phase to becoming commonplace, not only in commerce, but in social media and elsewhere: just about anyone can create a Twitter bot (though not all of them can successfully incite political arguments). But is that all there is? Is the point of AI always going to be a contest to see just how closely humans can replicate their own cognitive prowess (or, uh, lack thereof)?

In short, no.

While chatbots will continue to improve and serve in online customer service roles in 2017, they are not the reason AI is once again a hot topic. No, the reason is actually because robots are now standing on the shoulders of giants. Or rather, on giant piles of data. And with that data in their toolbelt, their potential is unimaginable.

AI’s Potential: Companies are taking note!

As Gil Press lays out in Forbes, companies have increasingly begun turning to AI to delve through the piles of data that the “big data” trend led them to collect. Rather than hire data scientists to put one human brain at a time to detect marketplace trends and projections, they essentially turn a bunch of robots loose and let them figure it out. That’s overly simplistic of course, but is effectively what is happening. Not only do the bots do a remarkable job at sorting through data (they don’t require sleep, coffee, or lunch breaks), but they also teach each other what they learn without a hint of the chronic miscommunication that makes us human.

And AI is not just being leveraged to decipher marketing and commerce trends. Other companies, such as Autodesk, are turning the new-and-improved AI bots toward engineering and manufacturing problems (and with great success, I should add.) For instance, take what they’re doing with the Airbus 320: they’re using AI to build a 3D-printed dividing wall inspired by human cells and bones, which could save 465,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions per year.

Enterprises Riding the IoT Wave

We’re not done yet. You’ve heard the term IoT (Internet of Things), right? IoT basically encompasses physical objects that are “smart” — for instance, your Nest thermostat would fall into this category. And AI is at the forefront of not just helping you remember when to turn down the heat or start the coffee machine, but, as each of these actions creates more data, is also being used by companies to improve a multitude of other areas. As covered by Microsoft in a blog here, companies will be able to use those data points for three types of analytics: reactive (identifying trends), proactive (providing better service), and predictive (staying ahead of their competitors in identifying new market inefficiencies).

And Microsoft isn’t alone in jumping into the massive data pile that is your smart, connected home. IBM and Cisco are similarly on the cutting edge of this aspect of AI, having recently combined IBM’s Watson with Cisco’s data analytics in an attempt to more efficiently analyze the heaps of data that have historically gone unanalyzed.

Tech behemoths like Google, IBM, Facebook, Apple and Salesforce are racing to acquire private AI companies. Samsung is also emerging as a new entrant this month with its acquisition of startup Viv Labs, which is developing a Siri-like AI assistant. 140 private companies working to advance artificial intelligence technologies have been acquired since 2011, with over 40 acquisitions in 2016 alone.

Your New Designer: A Robot?

Okay, so we have big data analysis, engineering, and the Internet of Things. That’s all we’ve taught the robots to do, right? Of course not! AI is also dipping its cold robotic toes into the world of design. Need to see it to believe it? Check out Project Dreamcatcher.

Unfettered by the limitations of the human mind, artificial intelligence is able to absorb and respond to the programming commands of things like strength, weight, and flexibility. In the Airbus 320 example, Autodesk was able to generate thousands of options for, in this case, a chassis that will meet all those demands.

AI and Chatbots: Anticipating the Future

Of course, the good ol’ days of AI aren’t going anywhere just yet. Chatbots (or “chatterbots”) are only getting better and more convincing. And, perhaps more importantly for businesses, cheaper. As the technology improves, the need to hire hundreds of customer service agents will decrease, saving companies handsomely in proportion to what they used to call payroll. In the aforementioned article in Forbes, Press cites a survey that predicts “62% of enterprises will use AI technologies by 2018”. That’s up from the current 38%.

Of course, those aren’t all the “how can I help you?” online support bots. That number also includes the data-digging, the engineering, the designing, and other “deep-learning” processes.

We’ve been promised creepy robots for decades. As it turns out, we are getting something better: a turbo-boost to the rapid advancement of the digital age.

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