This is the first of three stories on how information technology and innovation are transforming industries and people’s lives. The topics were discussed during a roundtable reception with the leaders of IBM, Panasonic and the Washington Corp. at the University of Montana.
By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current
The ability of computers to learn your habits and influence your behavior might sound like a bad dream of a futuristic world, one where cyborgs outsmart humans and rise to dominate the planet.
The good news is, artificial intelligence can’t exist without humans making it. The bad news is – if it’s bad news at all – the technology is already here and it’s only going to evolve.
“Artificial intelligence is one of the most powerful technologies out there today, if not one of the most misunderstood,” said Alex Philp, a Mansfield senior research fellow at the University of Montana. “You’ll commonly hear people worry about AI taking over the world, that it’s going to be self-conscious, that it’s going to kill us. You have people talking about the end of jobs and automation. But most people don’t know what it is.”
Philp moderated a panel of technology experts from IBM, Panasonic and the Washington Corp. this week at UM in a roundtable discussion on information technology and how innovation is transforming industry and people’s lives.
Hosted by Accelerate Montana and the Mansfield Center, the discussion touched on a range of issues, from big data analytics to sensor technology. As it turns out, artificial intelligence may be a blending of the two, and the technology has been around for half a century, storing what most of us forget.
“We have languages that are simple that intercept all this data and start to anticipate and give responses before you even ask,” said Nick Donofrio, former executive vice president of innovation and technology at IBM. “How does it know that? We know because we watched you. We’ve traced you for the last five years. We know exactly what you do and we’re going to use that to try and influence you. It doesn’t end, my friends.”
Donofrio, who spent 44 years with IBM and helped fund the development of Watson (a $200 million project), described meta-data as “data that’s created on the way to getting to the data.” It’s often more important than the data itself, giving users powerful computational abilities.
Machines have been learning for ages, a fact Donofrio branded as a primitive version of artificial intelligence. But coupled with new innovations, it’s becoming smarter and more powerful, and it will continue to evolve.
“It’s becoming more pedestrian, more democratized with technology and the way we put it to work,” Donofrio said. “It was always there, you just never saw it. But now you see it. It doesn’t end. The technologies of the future are going to be on an order of magnitude more powerful than the technology of today.”
While artificial intelligence can lead to philosophical debates among computer scientists, it also plays a practical role in everyday life, influencing how users interact with their iPhone or what they watch on Netflix.
The evolution of technology also has implications for local businesses that use large amounts of data to streamline operations, improve the customer experience and enhance profits.
Chris Warden, vice president of technology at the Washington Corp., views artificial intelligence as a blending of big data analytics and sensor technology. The results help the company run its trains with Montana Rail Link more efficiently.
“Nobody in our company is worried about the cyborgs taking over,” said Warden. “It’s a different type of scary because they don’t understand it. Part of my job is to connect these innovations to what matters, and to connect them to some trends that have been going on in business.”
The ability to analyze and apply large amounts of streaming data has helped the Washington Corp. make smarter decisions based upon real-time needs. When Warden started with the company many years go, it looked at data compiled over lengthy points of time and responded to the results.
But the company has evolved, finding “intelligent” ways to gather analytics.
“We moved into gathering real-time data that led to predictive analytics,” Warden said. “It led to us being able to better understand what’s going on and build algorithmic intelligence. That advance in automation is part of your intellectual property. That’s part of the algorithmic value you build that’s an extension of sensing and decision making.”
For Masato Nakamura, the director of international corporate affairs with Panasonic, the practical applications of technology and “machines that learn” are already rooted in today’s households, from washing machines to cooking appliances.
Many of those are interconnected. If they aren’t yet, they will be soon.
“In this town (Missoula), 300 houses are connected to each other by the Internet,” Nakamura said. “One center can monitor the situation of each house. This is what Panasonic is trying to develop, trying to think what we can offer to people in this kind of environment.”
Contact reporter Martin Kidston at firstname.lastname@example.org