AI and the future of business

AI and the future of business

Artificial intelligence (AI) used to belong in science fiction. But as Xiaofeng Ren, Chief Scientist and Associate Dean, Machine Intelligence and Technology at Alibaba explained at CeBIT Australia 2018, AI is not only science fact, it’s steadily transforming the way industries operate.

So what, exactly, is AI?

“People think of it as a replacement for true, human intelligence,” says Ren. “But it’s actually useful, helpful technology to help make people more effective.”

It’s an interesting definition because it shows that while “AI” has become a buzz term in the last five years, in reality it is a continuation of technological advances that trace back to the start of the industrial revolution.

Sure, self-driving cars may have been beyond the imagination of the people who moved under steam 200 years ago, but Ren draws a direct line from then, through to the development of calculating computers in the 20th century and on to the likes of Google and Siri today.

Visual recognition, speech recognition, protein decoding, cancer detection, chatbots and even family robots are all examples of artificial intelligence in action today. As computing power has increased (forget your megabytes or even terabytes – Ren talks about zettabytes), so the potential for AI has grown. And nowhere is that clearer than in China.

AI in China and the opportunity for Australian businesses

For many Australian businesses across a range of industries, China is a land of opportunity. So these 2017 statistics may make interesting reading:

  • 600,000 news articles about AI (Internet of Things was second with 100,000)
  • 300,000 AI-related patents taken out (compared to 50,000 for IoT)
  • 65% of Chinese think AI will create more job opportunities (22% of Australians share that view; the global average is 29%).

Ren describes AI in China as a “whirlwind”. Home to the three most valuable AI startups (currently valued at US$5 billion, US$4.5 billion and US$2.4 billion each), China has embraced the possibilities presented by artificial intelligence. It makes sense for companies looking to do business in China to do likewise.

The great news is that AI isn’t limited to the tech sector. Ren also sees AI opportunity in retail, media, agriculture, manufacturing, logistics, finance, energy, healthcare, law and education. “In fact, it’s harder to find an industry where it can’t be used,” he says.

The potential rewards are astronomical. Currently valued at US$1.2 trillion, AI is forecast to be a US$3.2 trillion industry by 2022.

Small wonder, then, that Ren’s company, Alibaba, is investing so much in AI to achieve founder Jack Ma’s target of two billion consumers.

How Alibaba is using AI

Technology underpins Alibaba’s enabling services, and that technology is driven by an independent R&D division working across the entire Alibaba group. Underway is the development of machine intelligence technology (another term for AI), focusing on speech recognition, computer vision, natural language and understanding, as well as optimisation and learning.

This technology is already being deployed for:

  • Transport – an intelligent metro system using voice recognition in a noisy environment
  • Retail – image searching to transform online shopping
  • Agriculture – AI can be used to detect malnourished animals
  • Logistics – delivering billions of parcels, and using self-driving vehicles to solve the traditionally inefficient “last mile problem” (efficiently getting parcels from the depot to the home).

But Ren is clearly most excited about the help AI can provide humanity in the future. It’s a vision that underpins Alibaba’s DAMO academy. Standing for Discovery, Adventure, Momentum and Outlook, the academy’s goal is to face the future and solve humanity’s problems.

Ren can already see a not-too-distant future where AI-enabled robots can help people struggling with arthritis, or deliver much-needed medication to remote areas. It’s a wonderful thought – and one that creates intriguing opportunities for many people.

Of course, as technology advances, it’s more crucial than ever to make sure you’ve got the software necessary to meet those changes. Download our How to choose the right software for your business e-book to help future-proof your business.

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