Artificial intelligence (AI) is not a new concept. The modern field of AI came into existence in 1956, but it took decades of work to make significant progress toward developing an AI system and making it a technological reality.
Today, AI and its commonly cited subset of machine learning are common, especially in the business world. Most of us interact with AI in some form or another daily, but the truth is there are vast applications of the technology, from the mundane to the breathtaking. As AI and machine learning further proliferate, they are becoming an imperative for businesses that want to maintain a competitive edge.
AI and business today
Rather than serving as a replacement for human knowledge and ingenuity, AI is generally seen as a supporting tool for the humans. Although AI currently has a difficult time completing common-sense tasks in the real world, it is adept at processing and analyzing troves of data far more quickly than a human brain could. AI can then return with synthesized courses of action and present them to the human user. In this way, humans can use AI to help game out possible consequences of each action and streamline the decision-making process.
"AI is kind of the second coming of software," Amir Husain, founder and CEO of machine-learning company SparkCognition, said. "It's a form of software that makes decisions on its own, that's able to act even in situations not foreseen by the programmers. AI has a wider latitude of decision-making ability as opposed to traditional software."
Those traits make AI highly valuable throughout many industries, whether it's simply helping visitors and staff make their way around a corporate campus efficiently or performing a task as complex as monitoring a wind turbine and predicting when it will need repairs before it breaks down.
Machine learning, which is a subsection of AI that works to analyze data and identify patterns, is used often in systems that capture vast amounts of data. For example, smart energy management systems collect data from sensors affixed to a variety of assets. The large troves of data captured are then often contextualized by machine learning algorithms and delivered to human decision makers to better understand energy usage and maintenance demands.
AI is even an indispensable ally when it comes to looking for holes in computer network defenses, Husain said.
"You really can't have enough cybersecurity experts to look at these problems, because of scale and increasing complexity," he said. "AI is playing an increasing role here as well."
AI is also changing customer relationship management (CRM) systems. Software like Salesforce or Zoho require a heavy amount of human intervention to remain up to date and accurate. But by applying AI to these sorts of platforms, a normal CRM system is transformed into a self-updating, auto-correcting system that stays on top of your relationship management for you.
[For those in brand new companies, read our report on crm tools for startups]
Another example of AI's versatility is within the financial sector. Dr. Hossein Rahnama, founder and CEO of AI concierge company Flybits and visiting professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, worked with TD Bank to integrate artificial intelligence into regular banking operations, such as mortgage loans.
"Using this technology, if you have a mortgage with the bank and it's up for renewal in 90 days or less … if you're walking by a branch, you get a personalized message inviting you to go to the branch and renew purchase," Rahnama said. "If you're looking at a property for sale and you spend more than 10 minutes there, it will send you a possible mortgage offer.
"We're no longer expecting the user to constantly be on a search box Googling what they need," he added. "The paradigm is shifting as to how the right information finds the right user at the right time."
The future of AI
So, how might artificial intelligence be used in the future? It's hard to say how the technology will continue to develop, but most experts see those "common sense" tasks becoming even easier for computers to process. That means robots will become extremely useful in the day-to-day life of humanity.
"In the next five to 10 years, AI and specifically deep learning will enable robots to do some of the basic tedious and time-consuming tasks that we do each day," said Matt Murphy, CMO of the AI-powered real estate CRM company Chime. "For example, I can see a world where robots clean our houses, do our laundry and even walk our dogs."
Other analysts, like co-founder and Chief Technology Officer of Nara Logics Dr. Nathan Wilson, said they see AI on the cusp of revolutionizing familiar activities, such as driving.
"The obvious next domino to fall relates to taking a thing we do all the time that has well-defined rules — driving — and automating it," Wilson said. "In a bit more time, 'Batmobile' cars for everyone will drop you off at your destination on a rainy day and drive themselves as far as you want in search of free parking."
Wilson also predicted that AI could be used by a restaurant, for example, to decide which music to play based on the interests of the guests in attendance. AI could even alter the appearance of the wallpaper design based on what the technology anticipates the aesthetic preferences of the crowd might be.
And if that isn't far-out enough for you, Rahnama predicted that AI will take digital technology out of the two dimensional, screen-imprisoned form to which people have grown accustomed. Instead, the primary user interface will become the physical environment surrounding an individual.
"We've always relied on a two-dimensional display to play a game or interact with a web page or read an e-book," Rahnama said. "What's going to happen now with AI and a combination of [the internet of things] is that the display won't be the main interface — the environment will be. You'll see people designing experiences around them, whether it's in connected buildings or connected boardrooms. These will be 3D experiences you can actually feel." [Interacting with digital overlays in your immediate environment? Sounds like a job for augmented reality.]
What does AI mean for the worker?
With all these new AI use cases comes the daunting question of whether machines will force humans into obsolescence. The jury is still out; some experts vehemently deny that AI will automate so many jobs that millions of people find themselves unemployed, while other experts see it as a problem in pressing need of a solution.
"The structure of the workforce is changing, but I don't think AI is essentially replacing jobs," Rahnama said. "It allows us to really create a knowledge-based economy and leverage that to create better automation for a better form of life. It might be a little bit theoretical, but I think if you have to worry about AI and robots replacing our jobs, it's probably algorithms replacing white-collar jobs such as business analysts, hedge fund managers and lawyers."
Wilson said the shift toward AI-based systems would likely cause the economy add jobs that are intended to facilitate the transition.
"AI will create more wealth than it destroys," Wilson said, "but it will not be equitably distributed, especially at first. The changes will be subliminally felt and not overt. [For example,] a tax accountant won't one day receive a pink slip and meet the robot that is now going to sit at her desk. Rather, the next time the tax accountant applies for a job, it will be a bit harder to find one."
Wilson said he anticipates that AI in the workplace will fragment long-standing workflows, creating many human jobs to help integrate those workflows together. Other experts, like Husain, said they are not as sure about where the new jobs will come from once AI becomes more ubiquitous.
"[In the past,] there were opportunities to move from farming to manufacturing to services," Husain said. "Now, that's not the case. Why? Industry has been completely robotized, and we see that automation makes more sense economically."
Husain pointed to self-driving trucks and AI concierges like Siri or Cortana as examples, stating that as these technologies improve, widespread use could eliminate as many as 8 million jobs in the U.S. alone.
"When all these jobs start going away, we need to ask, 'What is it that makes us productive? What does productivity mean?'" Husain said. "Now we're confronting the changing reality and questioning society's underlying assumptions. We have to really think about this and decide what makes us productive and what is the value of people in society. We need to have this debate and have it quickly, because the technology won't wait for us."
Whether rosy or rocky, the future is coming quickly, and AI will certainly be a part of it. As this technology develops, the world will see new startups, numerous business applications and consumer uses, as well as the displacement of certain jobs and the creation of entirely new ones. Along with the internet of things, artificial intelligence has the potential to dramatically remake the economy, but its exact impact remains to be seen.
Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.