Back in 1956, when John McCarthy, then an assistant professor of mathematics at Dartmouth College, sat with a group of professors and scientists to explore the possibility of simulating human intelligence with machines, he did not envisage that the long brainstorming session would produce the term artificial intelligence (AI) and subsequently lead to its recognition as a branch of science.
Nearly 70 years after that meeting, AI is unfolding as a major force in the fast-evolving future of technology. It reflects the nature of technology to become more specific in the tasks it can perform, just as humans have become more specialised over the years in their various professional endeavours.
Unsurprisingly, global technology firms such as Huawei Technologies, OpenAI, Google and Microsoft are in a frenetic race to lead the charge in devising ways in which AI can be used to transform our social and economic lives positively.
Society will soon enter an intelligent world where everything is connected and everything can sense. As we move towards ubiquitous AI, all people and things will have access to intelligence as well.
Before I delve into the ways in which we can use AI, let me point out some key advantages that it brings. AI applications can execute incredibly complicated tasks with ease.
They can personalise recommendations for the next song you may enjoy or pick through millions of X-rays for the one that indicates a problem. Moreover, they can accomplish such tasks at levels of volume and accuracy that human experts cannot match. Monotonous — yet important — jobs can be dispatched flawlessly and without complaint.
Yet even then, AI still needs to work alongside humans and is expected to continue doing so for the foreseeable future. This is because of context, meaning that we can imagine, anticipate, feel and judge changing situations and AI will benefit greatly from human guidance.
Tech industry players have variously painted the future, which could be as soon as the year 2030, largely impacted positively by AI. Huawei, for instance, predicts that the total number of global connections will reach 200 billion and individual internet access will exceed 10 Gigabits per second, signalling the immense power that will be at their hands to upload and download content while also carrying out collaborative online tasks.
Humanity will enter the yottabyte data era, with general-purpose computing power increasing by 10 times and AI computing power by 500 times. Solar energy will also become one of our main power sources, with the proportion of renewables expected to reach 50 per cent.
It may seem far-fetched but by 2030, medical practitioners are expected to further shift their focus from treatment to prevention as they will be able to identify potential health problems by computing and modelling public health and medical data, as AI delivers more precise medical solutions.
While the world is already witnessing urban intensive farming in small spaces using methods such as aquaponics, it is expected that by 2030, the concept of vertical farms that are unaffected by changes in climate conditions will be applied on a much larger scale, with demand for organic food rising exponentially. AI is expected to play a role in controlling and delivering plant and animal nutrition.
By 2030, as technologies such as Extended Reality (XR), naked-eye 3D display, digital touch and digital smell develop further, the concepts of digital vision, digital touch and digital smell will create an immersive and disruptive online experience for people.
Many vehicle manufacturers are already phasing out fossil fuel engines and it is expected that new energy vehicles will become the mobile “third space”. Similarly, new aircraft, such as unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) and even flying cars, will increasingly become a reality, thus raising the efficiency of medical emergencies and changing the way people commute by reducing transport times.
Countries like Saudi Arabia are already designing desert cities of the future with only flying cars. Think of Nairobi without Mombasa Road and the expressway, Thika Road or Waiyaki Way or any of the arteries into the City Centre.
When AI becomes ubiquitous, it will help us transcend human limitations. It will serve as microscopes and telescopes for scientists, enhancing our understanding of everything from the tiniest quarks to the largest cosmological phenomena. Industries already making extensive use of digital technology will become more intelligent with AI.
But with all these, how are we prepared for the future? As AI’s capabilities are improving rapidly, actual adoption remains relatively low. Only four per cent of enterprises have invested in or deployed AI, and just two per cent of retailers have begun exploring its potential.
In addition, only about one per cent of the existing global workforce has the engineering skills and experience to meet the demand for AI applications. This is a tiny drop in what needs to be a massive global talent pool.
We need to speed up model training: the process we use to “teach” a machine-learning algorithm. Currently, it takes days or months to train a new model, and a lot can go wrong along the way. We need to speed up this process to minutes or seconds.
We also need to automate data labelling, data collection and model design. Right now these processes are far too labour-intensive, requiring lots of manual work from scarce technical specialists. We also need to increase the availability and affordability of computing power to avoid it eventually becoming a bottleneck.
After reading this, can you say we are really getting ready for a future ruled by artificial intelligence?
Mr Mwangi is the Technical Solutions Lead at Serianu Limited.