Machine vs man race hots up
SMEs in the Middle East are working to harness the power of artificial intelligence
Last week, it was revealed that Fan Hui, European champion of the ancient Chinese board game Go, was defeated by a new kid on the block, AlphaGo. The news created a stir in the sporting and technology worlds. A final frontier had been breached - a machine had won!
AlphaGo is a computer system developed by DeepMind, a London-based Google-owned company working in the domain of artificial intelligence (AI). AlphaGo relies on AI technologies to simulate game situations and put together a wining strategy.
The game of Go has been the subject of research for some time. As it is played on a 19x19 board (making it exponentially more complicated than chess, which is set on a 8x8 board), the industry consensus seemed to indicate that it would have taken about a decade more before a computer could put one past a top human Go player. AlphaGo is, thus, years ahead of its times.
This breakthrough continues a slow but steady trend of computers beating the human mind in strategy games, with past examples including the 1997 defeat of chess Grandmaster Garry Kasparov by IBM's Deep Blue machine and more recently IBM's Watson winning the game Jeopardy in 2011 and Google's DQN system mastering the Atari game Breakout in 2014.
The field of AI, dubbed as 'the fourth industrial revolution', is gaining significant traction globally and was one of the prime technology trends discussed during the recently-concluded World Economic Forum (WEF) at Davos (January 20 to 23, 2016).
Loss of jobs
The WEF report titled 'The Future of Jobs' issued on the sidelines of the event highlighted that the rising use of AI could lead to a possible net loss of over five million jobs in 15 major developed and emerging economies by 2020 owing to skills and jobs displacement. However, part of these losses would be offset by employment growth in other specialised sectors, such as computing, architecture and engineering, etc.
The impact of AI on a diverse set of industries is disruptive, with AI-enabled tools successfully supporting key decision making across the board. For example, in healthcare, IBM Watson can now diagnose certain cancers better than human doctors; in the field of security, Facebook's Moments app uses facial recognition technology developed using AI tools to help users privately organise and share their photos with friends; and in the banking industry, AI algorithms are helping traders at Charles Schwab make sound investment decisions.
Even the automotive industry is gearing up for an increased use of AI in the years to come. A key announcement in this domain was made in November 2015, when Toyota announced a five-year, $1 billion investment in AI research, by establishing the Toyota Research Institute.
The cause of AI is not lost even on the start-up space, with entrepreneurs the world over dabbling with AI tools to launch new products and services. Some of the promising AI start-ups include MetaMind, focusing on sentiment analysis and image classification; The Grid that uses AI to build and customise websites for its users and Enlitic that uses deep learning AI technologies and image analysis to help doctors make diagnoses and highlight abnormalities in medical images.
The Middle East too is witnessing significant traction in the field of AI and local entrepreneurs are working on developing region-specific AI tools.
Dubai-based start-up Tapiatric is one such example, which is involved in developing AI and big data tools to support healthcare and is primarily focused on the Mena region.
Further, Dubai-headquartered Finerd Asset Management is using AI systems to support its investment management solutions. In fact, Finerd was named one of '10 Mena start-ups to put on your radar - Fall 2015' by ArabNet.
Similarly, LoopMe (headquartered in London with offices and operations in Dubai) has developed a mobile video advertising platform based on AI. The company has recently raised $7 million via private equity to continue its development plans and push for a global footprint.
Even the UAE government is looking at ways to harness the power of AI and robotics to improve people's lives and aid the smooth delivery of government and social services. In fact, in November 2014, the government set up the International Council on Artificial Intelligence and Robotics (iCAIR) in partnership with the WEF's Global Agenda Council.
The first initiative of the council, in February 2015, was to launch the 'UAE Artificial Intelligence and Robotics Award for Good' (with prize money of Dh4.67 million) to promote the best use of these technologies in areas such as health, education and social services. The completion saw participation of teams from across the world.
Innovation all the way
The winner of the international category was UC Berkeley's Suit-X, an exoskeleton system designed to improve the physiological gait development of children. The winner of the local category was Al Murshid Al Thaki (Smart Guidance System for the Blind) robot.
Looking ahead, although the deployment of AI is still only at nascent stages in most industries, the coming years are likely to witness a slow but steady growth in AI-linked services.
As the world prepares for the eventual integration of AI in our lives, a small team of engineers and AI enthusiasts in DeepMind's London office are busy preparing for their programme AlphaGo's next Go match - against the world number one player, Lee Sedol - scheduled for March, in Seoul. This is going to be a match worth waiting for!
The writer is a UAE-based consultant specialising in telecommunications, smart city and information and communications technology. Views expressed are his own and do not reflect the newspaper's policy.