Insights|SXSW 2018: Why understanding AI should be on top of your business to-do list

SXSW 2018: Why understanding AI should be on top of your business to-do list

In Austin, Texas, with the notable exception of Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX and Tes, everyone from Mercedes and Trip Advisor to O’Reilly Media and the brains behind Apple’s Siri shared their optimism and excitement about artificial intelligence (AI) and its potential business capabilities.

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SXSW - understanding artificial intelligence
by Sitel staff March 22, 2018 - 4 MIN READ

In Austin, Texas, with the notable exception of Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX and Tesla, everyone from Mercedes and Trip Advisor to O’Reilly Media and the brains behind Apple’s Siri shared their optimism and excitement about artificial intelligence (AI) and its potential business capabilities.

At this year’s event, where Sitel Group’s Chief Marketing Officer, Partnerships & Innovation and co-founder, Arnaud de Lacoste, provided daily video round-ups of the stand-out trends and most thought-provoking talks, AI proved to be the hottest topic.

It’s still in its early days, but the possibilities and potential applications for this budding technology are already a game changer – especially among the 113 separate conferences, keynotes, discussion groups and workshops on the subject clearly demonstrated.

Intelligent vacations

Trip Advisor’s VP for Product and Consumer Experience, Jeff Chow, spoke about how his company’s use of AI is already creating new levels of customer service and engagement. Trip Advisor has been using a chatbot fueled by user reviews and data on Facebook’s Messenger platform to provide restaurant recommendations and help find the best flight and hotel deals since March 2017. With the lessons learned and data collected, it is focusing on using AI to power a contextually aware, personalized recommendation assistant – one that knows if you’re in town for work or play, if you enjoy being a tourist or if you prefer to experience the city like a native.

“What Chow highlighted to the audience is that context is key,” says Arnaud de Lacoste. “It resonates because it’s exactly the same challenge we focus on when implementing AI as part of the customer experience. To work, it has to understand the system.”

Context is key

Continuing this theme, Andrew Hill, Mercedes-Benz’s Director of Machine Learning and Predictive User Experience, pointed out how, because of context, the answer to the same question can change massively. In these circumstances, is it up to the user to tell the AI system or can the system figure it out by itself?

“With human interaction, the context is really important,” said Hill. “How much [context awareness] can be learned automatically by the system itself, so you get a much more natural interaction?”

That’s why, according to Hill, context switching will be a major area for AI R&D in the near future. But for now, the solution is to make very targeted use of the technology, focusing its capabilities on the narrowest possible scope for the greatest possible outcomes.

To learn more about the crucial role context will play in AI deployment, read the MAY 2017 edition of Sitelmag.

Narrow scope

This reduced scope is also why people shouldn’t be worried that the AI and the robotics they’ll enable will lead to automation of a multitude of existing occupations. In his talk, “Do More. Do Things That Were Previously Impossible,” Tim O’Reilly, founder & CEO of O’Reilly Media, said he believes automation and robotics will actually lead to job creation.

Enhancing humans

Amazon has installed 45,000 robots at its various facilities but, O’Reilly said, these machines have in turn created four times as many jobs for people. In other words, this fourth industrial revolution spearheaded by AI is set to empower humans, not restrict them.

Enhancing humanity

And this, according to a host of speakers, from Liesl Capper-Yearsley, CEO and co-founder at Akin; and Alexander Manowsky, Futurist at Daimler AG (Mercedes-Benz parent company), to Eleanor “Nell” Watson, Engineer and Machine Learning Philosopher, is one of the reasons why we must instill ethics and empathy into the technology. Especially as by the end of the decade, an AI-driven voice-activated assistant could be in regular use in up to 50 percent of U.S. homes.

Installing empathy

In this environment, Liesl Capper-Yearsley believes it’s crucial that people talk to these assistants as they would to another person, and that the assistant responds similarly. It’s also why she believes AI should be humanized.

This is not a new idea. In fact, automakers have anthropologists on their autonomous driving technology development teams because self-driving cars need to operate in a context of human understanding – such as the way a driver will signal recognition via facial expression or gesture to a pedestrian that is looking to cross the street.

“It is interesting to hear speakers from other industries consider the impact of [AI-enabled] conversational interaction with machines,” points out Arnaud de Lacoste. “For companies like Sitel that have conversations with customers every day, this potency is already clear. But until now, maybe some companies haven’t been thinking about it enough. Conversation is going to revolutionize how we interact.”

A threat to humanity?

But even with so much talk around the ethics and around mitigating the potential negative risks of AI, some very high-profile voices are still very much against the technology’s development.

The loudest voice is that of Elon Musk, who gatecrashed the event to say AI is more dangerous than a nuclear bomb.

“I am really quite close, I am very close, to the cutting edge in AI and it scares the hell out of me,” he said. “[AI is] capable of vastly more than almost anyone knows and the rate of improvement is exponential.”

He called for the technology to be regulated so that it is developed safely so that.

“The advent of digital superintelligence is one which is symbiotic with humanity,” said Musk.

However, even if AI breakthroughs are coming at a faster and faster rate, one expert – Adam Cheyer who co-created Apple’s Siri – is a lot more optimistic about where the technology is going.

It will take 20-40 years before AI is truly a revolutionary force in everyday society, and according to Cheyer, we’re still as much as 1,000 years from a real-life Terminator machine with intelligence superior to that of the smartest human.

Therefore, we should be happy that the debate about how we move forward with this technology is starting now, rather than in 3018.

To watch Arnaud de Lacoste’s video highlights of this year’s event, click here.

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