We have been talking about artificial intelligence (AI) for quite a while now but, so far, it has failed to really make its mark. It is showing a great deal of potential but has not yet lived up to the hype. Anyone who uses Siri or Alexa quickly discovers the limitations when they try to step out of a strict set of rules.
However, there is no denying that it is only a matter of time before AI starts to make a big difference in multiple industries and in a number of areas.
Healthcare is arguably one of the industries likely to see the biggest growth in the use and application of AI in the next few years, and this is backed up by the huge amount of investment in this industry. There are a number of areas in the healthcare industry where AI is already gaining a lot of ground.
One of the things the healthcare industry has in abundance is data. Governments and healthcare organizations have billions of data records going back many decades, and mining this data to gain an insight can be a big challenge. AI is already used to mine and analyze this data to spot subtle patterns in the progression, diagnosis, and treatment of many medical conditions.
The diagnosis of a medical condition or disease is not as black and white as you may think. A diagnosis is often made by piecing together a number of indications and observations until the balance of probability is sufficiently in favor of a diagnosis. I was recently surprised to hear that very few blood tests for common diseases are 100% accurate. Almost all have a few percentage points of error.
Healthcare professionals rely on years of experience and prebuilt algorithms to recognize the signs of illness and make a diagnosis, but they can often miss things. For example, doctors may look at an x-ray that, to most of us, looks normal, but they will see a subtle shadow that can indicate an illness. How subtle can that shadow be before it is missed?
The BBC reported on new research using AI to outperform experienced cardiologists in spotting early signs of heart disease. The report states that even the best doctors get it wrong about 20% of the time. They rely on their experience to help them spot telltale signs of disease, whether that is a pattern in a scan or shadows on an x-ray. Researchers fed the system data on 1,000 patients, including their scan results, and information about whether they later had heart problems. Using machine learning, the AI system was able to more accurately spot signs of heart disease in the scans than experienced doctors. This research is still in the early stages, but it is a good illustration of the potential of what AI can bring to this industry.
As this and similar systems are fed more and more historical data, they will get better and better at spotting patterns and signs of disease. I can see AI being used more and more for medical diagnosis across the healthcare industry.
We all know about Tesla and Elon Musk’s claims about the capability of its autopilot feature. We hear that the company is very close to being able to navigate autonomously from coast to coast in the United States. I have witnessed autopilot firsthand and, on a motorway, it was very impressive. However, that was a motorway with fairly straight lanes and nice, clear road markings. Navigating through the center of London or, even harder, on a single-track country lane with hedges on either side, is an entirely different proposition. In my opinion, we are a very long way from AI that is powerful and experienced enough to safely navigate a very complex journey on its own.
Car manufacturers are now looking at embedding AI services such as Amazon Alexa into their vehicles to allow passengers to control technology in the car through natural language voice commands. At this year’s CES show in Las Vegas, Mercedes-Benz demonstrated its new AI-powered in-car personal assistant, and in 2017, BMW announced it would start integrating Alexa into selected BMW and Mini vehicles in 2018. Kia also recently announced it will soon embed Google Assistant into its infotainment systems.
Undoubtedly, we will see increasingly powerful AI within new cars over the next few years, used for both navigation and as in-car virtual assistants. But I think it will be many years (even decades) before we have cars that use AI to be truly autonomous.
One of the more worrying trends I expect to see over the next few years is the use of AI in cyberattacks. This has been happening for quite a while now in a relatively basic form. For years, the Internet has been awash with bots that are constantly poking at web servers looking for vulnerabilities. As soon as they find a vulnerability, they will report back to their owner or automatically exploit the vulnerability. These bots, however, are fairly unintelligent and will not learn or automatically adapt their behavior based on what they find.
This is where I see AI being exploited and weaponized. Rather than simply poke at servers looking for holes, AI-powered bots will have the ability to learn, adapt, and evade cybersecurity. It is often said that humans are the weakest link when it comes to cybersecurity. AI tools are already being developed that can learn what phishing techniques are most effective and automatically create phishing campaigns that are better than those created by humans. This technique was tested by two data scientists from security company ZeroFox in 2016. They built an AI tool that would use machine learning to determine what phishing techniques gained the best results and adapt the emails based on this learning. In tests, the AI tool significantly outperformed a human.
This view that AI will be increasingly weaponized is shared by the industry. During the Black Hat USA 2017 conference in July last year, 62% of surveyed attendees agreed there is a high possibility that AI could be used by hackers for offensive purposes.
While AI is expected to be weaponized over the next few years for offensive cyberattacks, it is also expected it will be used defensively within the cybersecurity industry. One of the key roles of any cybersecurity system is to recognize threats and protect against them. This is usually done by recognizing threat signatures that match a predefined list. AI and machine learning can identify malicious behavior that does not necessarily have a known signature and then defend against that behavior. While this approach is still at a very early stage, I expect it to become more prevalent, especially as the offensive use of AI becomes more widespread.
E-commerce and customer service
Retail is one of the fastest-moving industries in the world, and e-commerce retail is even faster. Competition is often fierce, and this drives innovation within the industry.
Chances are you have already experienced AI in e-commerce, but you may not have noticed. Every time Amazon recommends a product to you, this is driven by AI. A very complex set of algorithms is used to determine what you are likely to purchase based on your demographic profile, your purchasing history, and what other products you have viewed. Amazon generates vast quantities of data, and this data can be used by AI to generate highly targeted recommendations.
You may also have used a live chat tool, either on a website or on a platform such as Facebook, to communicate with a brand. There is a good chance that, at least once, you have been speaking to an AI-powered bot that is feeding you a preset range of replies based on your comments.
Customer service is the perfect area for automation using AI. Most customer service queries follow a very similar pattern, such as “where is my order?” or “can I change the delivery address?” Customer service agents will normally have a script to follow based on the query, and the majority of queries will fit into a small set of scenarios.
For example, if a customer calls to ask when an order will be delivered, the customer service agent will probably ask the customer for authentication, maybe with an order number and postcode, then search for that order within internal systems to find its status and delivery date. The customer may then ask to change it, and the agent may do that.
This process could very easily be automated, as it does not really take any initiative from the agent, who is following a standard and scripted process. By automating processes like this, humans can be freed up to deal with the more complex queries that AI would struggle to handle.
It will be interesting to see how AI will be used in e-commerce over the next few years. I predict that AI will have its biggest impact in customer service, but also in user personalization to provide more targeted recommendations and experience to users.
Virtual personal assistants
There is currently a fierce battle taking place between Apple (HomePod), Google (Google Home), and Amazon (Echo) over home virtual assistant devices. Right now, Amazon seems to be winning with the Echo powered by Alexa. The skills of these assistants are fairly basic at the moment and are mainly limited to choosing music, answering a few questions, and controlling home automation devices.
I expect to see big advances in the capability of these devices over the next few years, especially with some of the biggest and most innovative companies in the world behind them. I predict they’ll be integrated with more consumer devices and home automation systems, and also for their AI to improve significantly. The software that powers these devices is already being integrated into products such as cars, Sonos, and even an LG fridge. I predict that this trend will start to accelerate in the next 12 months.
In summary, it seems that the development and use of AI are accelerating, and AI is likely to become much more prevalent across many industries over the next few years. I have picked a few industries but, in reality, AI is likely to have an impact across almost all industries to some degree.
However, I do think that we are a very long way from AI that can handle situations outside of a clear set of predefined scenarios. My car is not likely to be driving me all the way to work anytime soon, and you will still need to vacuum your stairs for years to come.
Learn how AI is already transforming industries in An AI Shares My Office.