AI presents rich tapestry for creative innovation

Artificial intelligence is definitely going places, so it's the perfect time for humans to get creative with it.

Johannesburg, 11 Jul 2018
Mark Harris.

The capabilities of artificial intelligence (AI) are no longer pie in the sky ideas and theories. They are a profound reality directly impacting markets, sectors and industries. Take China's Tencent, for example, which is one of four companies supported by the Chinese government to develop AI.

Tencent is a social media giant with more than a billion people using its instant messenger and 632 million monthly user accounts on its social networking platform, Qzone (the equivalent of Facebook and reportedly worth more than the troubled US company).

Tencent has fingers in the now traditional range of pies baked by the world's top digital businesses. Those pies range from AI to gaming, digital assistants, mobile payments, cloud storage, live streaming, education, movies and e-sports. Soon there will be more too because the company has stated its intention to put AI into everything.

Tencent is among those companies leading global AI development thanks at least in part to massive backing from the Chinese government. The business has the budget to hire the top experts in the field. It employs about 50 scientists and 200 software engineers focused on AI. But it's just one example.

From the mixed bag of discussions around the ethics of developing AI and how that may impact humanity and the human race, to the more purely positive aspects of helping humans do what humans do best (think creatively) AI is dominating a lot more of people's mindshare. It's the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters.

Far from replacing people, AI is really finding traction right now in helping people do the jobs they've always done.

Hanson Robotics created Sophia, which is the first robot to ever get citizenship (in Saudi Arabia); Baidu (China's Google) is using AI to help businesses use big data for real world problems through intelligent cloud; Tesla is using AI to improve self-driving cars; Google made AutoML, which is an AI to make AIs (to overcome the AI skills shortage); graphics card manufacturer Nvidia is making mobile AI processing brains for AI on the move; two Facebook chatbots recently bent English to their will by making their own language to talk to one another more efficiently (and Facebook subsequently shut them down because nobody could understand what they were saying); Microsoft wants AI everywhere for business from Azure to the edge; and there's IBM's Watson AI platform that is similar to Microsoft and moving in a multitude of directions that right now support people's roles in business.

AI is definitely going places but it's not quite there yet. And far from replacing people, which is one of the biggest fears workers have today, AI is really finding traction right now in helping people do the jobs they've always done.

Yet AI is really good at some stuff and really dumb at other stuff. For example, AIs have learned to identify images and pieces of images. This is significant because computers have always been pretty bad at it. But today they can pick out a camouflaged cat in a picture. It's part of the broader field of image recognition that has extensive commercial applications, everything from scanning faces at border control points, searching out wanted people and those of interest, to biometric access control in businesses, mapping geological faults, enriching military mission planning, recognising ripe fruits, and so many more applications.

The real benefit is that machines can do that and other tasks a lot faster than people can and sometimes a lot more accurately. Powerful AI-enriched platforms, for example, can scan thousands of faces a minute. It's a job traditionally done by people, just not so fast nor so accurately. That's extremely useful in so many ways. Mass transit, retail and event attendance, for example, without causing people to pause to pay at turnstiles, tills and other points is a massive win. The same technology can be used at companies where many employees and visitors regularly access a site.

Border control processes can be a lot simpler too if people don't have to all stop to have their identifying passports examined. There are definitely privacy concerns but there are also many potential benefits when they're handled adequately.

AI today, at this germinal phase in its development, is enriching people's lives and opening up a rich tapestry of opportunities based on creative application.

Mark Harris
Chief marketing officer, NEC XON

Mark Harris is chief marketing officer of NEC XON and has 30 years of experience in the industry leading and maturing the business development capabilities of ICT operations. He is the fulcrum of the marketing operations of NEC Africa and XON after the two organisations came together in 2018 to provide consulting, technical, support services and fully managed services to help keep customers relevant in the digital economy. Harris was marketing director of XON for three years, national sales manager for three years prior to that, and headed up the solutions architect team, as key account manager, and as sales manager for key accounts, for 11 years at a major South African Internet services organisation. The business enables African organisations to fully explore opportunities for safe city, energy storage and generation, cyber security, telecommunications, retail, managed services, cyber defence services, and cloud (both public and private), among others in Sub-Sahara Africa. The business now has hundreds of employees, with offices across nine provinces of SA and in 16 Sub-Sahara Africa countries.