HAL stands for ‘Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer’. Turns out that HAL has become a reality. Indeed we deal with thousands of useful HALs every time we go online. Whenever you are online, you are using AI. As the online revolution has accelerated, the often invisible application of AI and algorithms has crept into a vast range of our online activities. A brief history of algorithms includes the Sumerians, Euclid, the origins of the term (Al Khwarismi), Fibonacci, Leibniz, Gauss, Laplace, Boole and Bayes but in the 21st century ubiquitous computing and the internet has taken algorithms into the homes and minds of everyone who uses the web.
You’re reading this from a network, using software, on a device, all of which rely fundamentally on algorithms and AI. The vast portion of the software iceberg that lies beneath the surface, doing its clever but invisible thing, the real building blocks of contemporary computing – are algorithms and AI. Whenever you search, get online recommendations, engage with social media, buy, do online banking, online dating, see online ads; algorithms are doing their devilishly clever work.
BCG’s ten most innovative companies 2016
Boston Consulting Group publish this list every year:
Note how it is dominated by companies that deliver access and services online. Note that all, apart perhaps from Toyota, are turning themselves into AI companies. Some, such as IBM, Google and Microsoft have been explicit on this strategy. Others, such as Apple, Samsung, Netflix and Facebook have been acquiring skills and have huge research resources in AI. Note also that Tesla, albeit a car company, is really an AI company. Their cars are always on, learning robots. We are seeing a shift in technology towards ubiquitous AI.
We have all been immersed in AI since we first started using Google. Google is AI. Google exemplifies the success of AI in having created one of the most successful companies even on the back of AI. Beyond simple search, they also enable more specific AI-driven search through Google Scholar, Google Maps and other services. Whether it is documents, videos, images, audio or maps, search has become the ubiquitous mode of access. AI is the real enabler when it comes to access. Search Engine Indexing finds needles in the world’s biggest haystack. Search for something on the web and you’re ‘indexing’ billions of documents and images. Not a trivial task and it needs smart algorithms to do it at all, never mind in a tiny fraction of a second. PageRank was the technology that made Google one of the biggest companies in the world. Google has moved on, nevertheless, the multiple algorithms that rank results when you search are very smart. We all have, at our fingertips, the ability to research and find the things that only a tiny elite had access to only 20 years ago.
Amazon has built the world’s largest retail company with a raw focus on the user experience, presented by their recommendation engine. Their AI platform, Alexa, now delivers a range of services but it was made famous by its recommendations on first books, now other goods. But recommendation engines are now everywhere on the web. You are more often than not presented with choices that are pre-selected, rather than the result of a search. Netflix is a good example, where the tiling is tailored to your needs. Most social media feeds are now AI-driven, as are many online services, where, what you (and others) do, determines what you see.
Siri, VIV, Cortana, Alexa… voice recognition, enabled by advanced in AI through Natural Language Programming, has changed the way we communicate with technology. As speech is our natural form of communication, it is a more natural interface, giving significant advantages in some contexts. We are now in a position of seeing speech recognition move from being a topic of research to real commercial application as AI, in many forms but particularly deep learning and large data sets, have allowed some of the world’s largest tech companies to use it with hundreds of millions of customers; Apple, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Samsung and others.
In translation, the recent shift in approach from large scale pattern matching to more focused AI techniques gave Google a gear change in efficacy. Deep learning translation is so powerful that it now works with any new languages, without the need for huge data sets. Ready translation on social media, real time translation on Skype are here now. Language hurdles can be overcome with realtime online translation, available for voice calls and instant messaging. Skype Translator uses AI, machine learning, so the more you use it, the better it gets.
This is the age of algorithms. We open a file, it is decompressed, we save a file, it is compressed, we send a file, it is managed across a global network. We Skype, WebX, SnapChat, WhatsApp, Facetime – all of this is enabled by smart AI in terms of compression, networks and decompression. The underlying technology is fundamentally algorithmic. When we zip files, compress for transmission, decompress for use. Lossless and lossy compression and decompression magically squeeze big files into little files for transfer. On top of this are error correcting codes, mistakes that fix themselves, so that sound, pictures and videos can be saved, stored and retrieved without loss, especially across networks, where these clever algorithms maintain quality. Beyond this is the work of AI in determining news feeds and ads in social media.
The advent of big data means that the balance, in some contexts, has swung away from algorithms, towards the power of massive data sets. Nevertheless, when you use a database you use some clever algorithms. Databases are used for many forms of content storage and, although you may not know it most of the time, whenever you access a learning management system, VLE or learning content, you will have been using algorithm-driven databases. In other words, algorithms already lie at the heart of learning, albeit in an almost invisible and indirect way. We now see the emergence of blockchain, a distributed, hackproof, database structure, that may enable finance and learning applications of a different order.
Public key cryptography is how encryption works and keeps your credit card details safe when buying stuff. Amazon, Ebay, PayPal, credit cards and the entire world of online retail would not exist without this algorithm. Spam filters, phishing, even higher order cyber-threats, are all handled by AI.
Going back to our top ten list of innovative companies. They all see software that learns, as an integral part of their products and services. Machine ‘learning’, products and services that, the more you use them, the better they get, places ‘learning’ at the core of their businesses. Yet there is another sense in which AI can deliver ‘learning.
As most learning is informal, not through formal online learning courses, most online learning, through search, social media, communications and other online services, can be said to be AI-driven and mediated. AI has enabled informal online learning. AI now also delivers AI-driven content creation, curation, chat and consolidation through tools such as WildFire. Adaptive learning is also being delivered in large formal courses. Adaptive assessment, automated essay marking, face recognition, typing recognition are also AI-driven. Even plagiarism checking is now AI driven. AI is the new UI. AI is also the new UI for learning.
ConclusionBright young AI mathematicians and coders, no longer yearn to work on Wall Street or in banks but in start-ups, incubators and business creation. This has been a long time coming but at last human talent is being directed, not towards the mere management of money, but the creation of new ways of creating jobs and shaping the future. The question remains, that the Age of the Algorithm may destroy more jobs than it creates. Nevertheless, for the moment, it holds the promise of getting us out of boom-bust cycles where maths was forever blowing financial bubbles, into maths that make things work. As we have revealed the potency of algorithms, one can’t fail to admire the elegance of these carefully constructed, magic, mathematical spells. They are stunningly clever.