Artificial intelligence boomed this year like few other areas in tech, but despite the scientific breakthroughs, glut of funding, and new products rolling out to consumers, the field has problems that can’t be ignored. Some of these, like company-driven hype and sensationalist headlines, need better communication from the media and experts. Others challenges are more nuanced and will take longer to address, such as bias in algorithms and the growing threat of tech firms becoming AI monopolies as they hoover up data and talent.
But first, the good stuff. Artificial intelligence was everywhere in 2017, and although you’re right to be skeptical when you hear this, it’s positive news. Experts compare AI to electricity because it’s a resource with the potential to transform a broad range of industries. Sure, there are particularly important technologies in each sector (like autonomous driving in transportation), but it’s the smaller implementations of machine cleverness that may add up to have the biggest impact.
Big tech companies like Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Facebook have poured tons of money into the AI field, but it’s fair to say the end-results are often small-scale. Google’s put AI in a camera that automatically snaps photos of your family, and Apple’s new animated emojis is powered by facial recognition. These things won’t change the world, but collectively they build new efficiencies and new experiences.
Compare to this steady drip of AI integration, academic research was a raging torrent. Labs and universities published papers at a higher volume in 2017 than ever before, and big names like DeepMind made significant breakthroughs. (The company’s work removing human knowledge from its champion AlphaGo algorithm and then proving its skills work in other games spring to mind.) Congratulations should be somewhat constrained, as there’s a case to be made that the current wave of AI is supported by too few core innovations. But by no means has basic research stopped, and some radical new approaches are showing the first stirrings of life.
Robots also stirred to life in 2017, though the year revealed both the limits of current tech and its future promise. A lot of effort is going into applying the fruits of AI to current industrial robots, with companies like Kindred, Embodied Intelligence, Amazon, and Ocado working on dextrous and dynamic machines for warehouses and assembly lines. Advances here could have a huge effect in a range of industries, as robots get put to work pretty much anywhere stuff needs moving about.