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The AI Revolution HAS begun!

Some curmudgeons are arguing Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a bastardized term and the hype is distracting. People are arguing that we don’t have the freethinking, sci-fiesque AI or, as some people refer to it, Artificial General Intelligence (AGI). I say so what. Those of us in the AI business aren’t delusional and know that AI, aka Machine Learning (ML), is a fine weapon to bring into a software application to make it more sophisticated. It took me a while to understand that is all we are doing and that still is super important and valuable to organizations. I might admit I was initially mystified by “AI”, but at the end of the day (today anyway), it’s a bunch of math, code, data (for training – more on that later), and algorithms that either classify (organize data so it’s more valuable for making predictions) or triage (make decisions on which branch to send a task – automation or those pesky humans). Don’t make light of the ability to classify and triage at this level of complexity. We are seeing powerful applications of ML that are making dramatic impacts on numerous parts of organizations. We have published an ebook that goes into more detail https://bigr.io/mlfieldguide/ and an ML Workflow https://bigr.io/mlworkflow/ to shed more light on embracing ML at a high level.

The math and coding needed to embrace AI are straightforward (for those skilled in the art). Access to relatively inexpensive compute power is certainly plentiful and also not a roadblock. The hard parts are 1) getting, grooming, and labeling data for the algorithms to use to learn how to accomplish new tasks, and 2) building accurate algorithms that use the state-of-the-art techniques and current, reliable libraries. Some of the same curmudgeons alluded to above are saying things like “machines can’t learn to be human-like by pattern matching from strings of labeled data”. I happen to agree, but again so what? We will see a natural progression toward AI that is more human-like. In the meantime, there is a lot we can do with what we currently have. High-quality, groomed, labeled strings of data pipelined in for training is a fine way to teach models to learn (ML models that is) new tasks – rule-driven or even unsupervised. Albeit a narrowly focused task, but still a task the machines can perform better and/or significantly cheaper than humans.

AI had some false starts over the years, but I can attest to the fact there are real budgets for and real initiatives surrounding AI. And not just at the big boys anymore. Amazon, Apple, Google, Netflix, Facebook, Microsoft, IBM, etc., have made great use of machine learning over the past decade or so. But recently, with major contributions to the open source, AI has been democratized. It is now possible for a boutique consulting firm like BigR.io to help companies employ AI as an extension to their existing data management, computer science, and statistical/analytics practices. Staged adoption is the key. Come in with eyes wide open and know that there are nuances that need to be “tuned”, but you will see an impact and it will likely be orders of magnitude better than your current methods. And don’t expect Gideon or Skynet.

Ever since Geoffrey Hinton, Ilya Sutskever, and Alex Krizhevsky from the University of Toronto won the 2012 ImageNet competition with a deep convolutional neural network that beat the 2nd place team by ~41%, the “industry” has been paying attention. Academia has continuously supported furthering the AI cause over the years, but most companies and governments were leery of it as miserable failures had been the reputation… Then, in 2015, Microsoft won ImageNet with a model that surpassed human-level performance. With these milestones and benchmarks, adoption of machine learning has exploded over the past few years.

So, while we may not have AI with human-level intelligence (another way of saying it is that the machines can’t reason on their own), we do have AI that can imitate (i.e. replace) well-defined, domain-specific capabilities that were historically human-powered tasks. AI is proliferating marketing, advertising, sales, network and cyber security, business processes, and equipment maintenance, and will continue to work its way into new areas to augment or replace humans. Insurance companies are getting lift for the claims adjudication process, chatbots are supporting customer service, dialogue agents are selling products and services, sentiment models are driving portfolio management, radiological images are being assessed, cars are driving themselves, etc. These real-world examples coupled with the maturity of organizational readiness we are seeing when it comes to data management and engineering, is, in my opinion, evidence that the AI revolution has begun.

Sometimes I get to thinking that Alexa isn’t really my friend. I mean sure, she’s always polite enough (well, usually, but it’s normal for friends to fight, right?). But she sure seems chummy with that pickle-head down the hall too. I just don’t see how she can connect with us both — we’re totally different!

So that’s the state of the art of conversational AI: a common shared agent that represents an organization. A spokesman. I guess she’s doing her job, but she’s not really representing me or M. Pickle, and she can’t connect with either of us as well as she might if she didn’t have to cater to both of us at the same time. I’m exaggerating a little bit – there are some personalization techniques (*cough* crude hacks *cough*) in place to help provide a custom experience:

  • There is a marketplace of skills. Recently, I can even ask her to install one for me.
  • I have a user profile. She knows my name and zip code.
  • Through her marketplace, she can access my account and run my purchase through a recommendation engine (the better to sell you with, my dear!)
  • I changed her name to “Echo” because who has time for a third syllable? (If only I were hamming this up for the post; sadly, a true story)
  • And if I may digress to my other good friend Siri, she speaks British to me now because duh.

It’s a start but, if we’re honest, none of these change the agent’s personality or capabilities to fit with all of my quirks, moods, and ever-changing context and situation. Ok, then. What’s on my wishlist?

  • I want my own agent with its own understanding of me, able to communicate and serve as an extension of myself.
  • I want it to learn everything about how I speak. That I occasionally slip into a Western accent and say “ruf” instead of “roof”. That I throw around a lot of software dev jargon; Python is neither a trip to the zoo nor dinner (well, once, and it wasn’t bad. A little chewy.) That Pickle Head means my colleague S… nevermind. You get the idea.
  • I want my agent to extract necessary information from me in a way that fits my mood and situation. Am I running late for a life-changing meeting on a busy street uphill in a snowstorm? Maybe I’m just goofing around at home on a Saturday.
  • I want my agent to learn from me. It doesn’t have to know how to do everything on this list out of the box – that would be pretty creepy – but as it gets to know me it should be able to pick up on my cues, not to mention direct instructions.

Great, sign me up! So how do I get one? The key is to embrace training (as opposed to coding, crafting, and other manual activities). As long as there is a human in the loop, it is simply impossible to scale an agent platform to this level of personalization. There would be a separate and ongoing development project for every single end user… great job security for developers, but it would have to sell an awful lot of stuff.

To embrace training, we need to dissect what goes into training. Let’s over-simplify the “brain” of a conversational AI for a moment: we have NLU (natural language understanding), DM (dialogue management), and NLG (natural language generation). Want an automatically-produced agent? You have to automate all three of these components.

  • NLU – As of this writing, this is the most advanced component of the three. Today’s products often do incorporate at least some training automation, and that’s been a primary enabler that leads to the assistants that we have now. Improvements will need to include individualized NLU models that continually learn from each user, and the addition of (custom, rapid) language models that can expand upon the normal and ubiquitous day-to-day vocabulary to include trade-specific, hobby-specific, or even made-up terms. Yes, I want Alexa to speak my daughter’s imaginary language with her.
  • DM – Sorry developers, if we make plugin skills ala Mobile Apps 2.0 then we aren’t going to get anywhere. Dialogues are just too complex, and rules and logic are just too brittle. This cannot be a programming exercise. Agents must learn to establish goals and reason about using conversation to achieve those goals in an automated fashion.
  • NLG – Sorry marketing folks, there isn’t brilliant copy for you to write. The agent needs the flexibility to communicate to the user in the most effective way, and it can’t do that if it’s shackled by canned phrases that “reflect the brand”.

In my experience, most current offerings are focusing on the NLU component – and that’s awesome! But to realize the potential of MicroAgents (yeah, that’s right. MicroAgents. You heard it here first) we need to automate the entire agent, which is easier said than done. But that’s not to say that it’s not going to happen anytime soon – in fact, it might happen sooner than you think.  

Echo, I’m done writing. Post this sucker.

Doh!


 

In the 2011 Jeopardy! face-off between IBM’s Watson and Jeopardy! champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, Jennings acknowledged his brutal takedown by Watson during the last double jeopardy in stating “I for one welcome our new computer overlords.” This display of computer “intelligence” sparked mass amounts of conversation amongst myriad groups of people, many of whom became concerned at what they perceived as Watson’s ability to think like a human. But, as BigR.io’s Director of Business Development Andy Horvitz points out in his blog “Watson’s Reckoning,” even the Artificial Intelligence technology with which Watson was produced is now obsolete.

The thing is, while Watson was once considered to be the cutting-edge technology of Artificial Intelligence, Artificial Intelligence itself isn’t even cutting-edge anymore. Now, before you start lecturing me about how AI is cutting-edge, let me explain.

Defining Artificial Intelligence

You see, as Bernard Marr points out, Artificial Intelligence is the overarching term for machines having the ability to carry out human tasks. In this regard, modern AI as we know it has already been around for decades – since the 1950s at least (especially thanks to the influence of Alan Turing). Moreso, some form of the concept of artificial intelligence dates back to ancient Greece when philosophers started describing human thought processes as a symbolic system. It’s not a new concept, and it’s a goal that scientists have been working towards for as long as there have been machines.

The problem is that the term “artificial intelligence” has become a colloquial term applied when a machine mimics “cognitive” functions that humans associate with other human minds, such as “learning” and “problem solving.” But the thing is, AI isn’t necessarily synonymous with “human thought capable machines.” Any machine that can complete a task in a similar way that a human might can be considered AI. And in that regard, AI really isn’t cutting-edge.

What is cutting-edge are the modern approaches to Machine Learning, which have become the cusp of “human-like” AI technology (like Deep Learning, but that’s for another blog).

Though many people (scientists and common folk alike) use the terms AI and Machine Learning interchangeably, Machine Learning actually has the narrower focus of using the core ideas of AI to help solve real-world problems. For example, while Watson can perform the seemingly human task of critically processing and answering questions (AI), it lacks the ability to use these answers in a way that’s pragmatic to solve real-world problems, like synthesizing queried information to find a cure for cancer (Machine Learning).

Additionally, as I’m sure you already know, Machine Learning is based upon the premise that these machines train themselves with data rather than by being programmed, which is not necessarily a requirement of Artificial Intelligence overall.

https://xkcd.com/1838/

Why Know the Difference?

So why is it important to know the distinction between Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning? Well, in many ways, it’s not as important now as it might be in the future. Since the two terms are used so interchangeably and Machine Learning is seen as the technology driving AI, hardly anyone would correct you if were you to use them incorrectly. But, as technology is progressing ever faster, it’s good practice to know some distinction between these terms for your personal and professional gains.

Artificial Intelligence, while a hot topic, is not yet widespread – but it might be someday. For now, when you want to inquire about AI for your business (or personal use), you probably mean Machine Learning instead. By the way, did you know we can help you with that? Find out more here.

We’re seeing and doing all sorts of interesting work in the Image domain. Recent blog posts, white papers, and roundtables capture some of this work, such as image segmentation and classification to video highlights. But an Image area of broad interest that, to this point, we’ve but scratched the surface of is Video-based Anomaly Detection. It’s a challenging data science problem, in part due to the velocity of data streams and missing data, but has wide-ranging solution applicability.

In-store monitoring of customer movements and behavior.

Motion sensing, the antecedent to Video-based Anomaly Detection, isn’t new and there are a multitude of commercial solutions in that area. Anomaly Detection is something different and it opens the door to new, more advanced applications and more robust deployments. Part of the distinction between the two stems from “sensing” what’s usual behavior and what’s different.

Anomaly Detection

Walkers in the park look “normal”. The bicyclist is the anomaly. 

Anomaly detection requires the ability to understand a motion “baseline” and to trigger notifications based on deviations from that baseline. Having this ability offers the opportunity to deploy AI-monitored cameras in many more real-world situations across a wide range of security use cases, smart city monitoring, and more, wherein movements and behaviors can be tracked and measured with higher accuracy and at a much larger scale than ever before.

With 500 million video cameras in the world tracking these movements, a new approach is required to deal with this mountain of data. For this reason, Deep Learning and advances in edge computing are enabling a paradigm shift from video recording and human watchers toward AI monitoring. Many systems will have humans “in the loop,” with people being alerted to anomalies. But others won’t. For example, in the near future, smart cities will automatically respond to heavy traffic conditions with adjustments to the timing of stoplights, and they’ll do so routinely without human intervention.

Human in the Loop

Human in the loop.

As on many AI fronts, this is an exciting time and the opportunities are numerous. Stay tuned for more from BigR.io, and let’s talk about your ideas on Video-based Anomaly Detection or AI more broadly.

A few months back, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said that AI wasn’t on his radar as a concern for taking over the American labor force and went on to say that such a concern might be warranted in “50 to 100 more years.” If you’re reading this, odds are you also think this is a naive, ill-informed view.

An array of experts, including Mnuchin’s former employer, Goldman Sachs, disagree with this viewpoint. As PwC states, 38% of US jobs will be gone by 2030. On the surface, that’s terrifying, and not terribly far into the future. It’s also a reasonable, thoughtful view, and a future reality for which we should prepare.

Naysayers maintain that the same was said of the industrial and technological revolutions and pessimistic views of the future labor market were proved wrong. This is true. Those predicting doom in those times were dead wrong. In both cases, technological advances drove massive economic growth and created huge numbers of new jobs.

Is this time different?

It is. Markedly so.

The industrial revolution delegated our labor to machines. Technology has tackled the mundane and repetitive, connected our world, and, more, has substantially enhanced individual productivity. These innovations replaced our muscle and boosted the output of our minds. They didn’t perform human-level functions. The coming wave of AI will.

Truckers, taxi and delivery drivers, they are the obvious, low-hanging fruit, ripe for AI replacement. But the job losses will be much wider, cutting deeply into retail and customer service, impacting professional services like accounting, legal, and much more. AI won’t just take jobs. Its impacts on all industries will create new opportunities for software engineers and data scientists. The rate of job creation, however, will lag far behind that of job erosion.

But it’s not all bad! AI is a massive economic catalyst. The economy will grow and goods will be affordable. We’re going to have to adjust to a fundamental disconnect between labor and economic output. This won’t be easy. The equitable distribution of the fruits of this paradigm shift will dominate the social and political conversation of the next 5-15 years. And if I’m right more than wrong in this post, basic income will happen (if only after much kicking and screaming by many). We’ll be able to afford it. Not just that — most will enjoy a better standard of living than today while also working less.

I might be wrong. The experts might be wrong. You might think I’m crazy (let’s discuss in the comments). But independent of specific outcomes, I hope we can agree that we’re on the precipice of another technological revolution and these are exciting times!