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February 12, 2016

By Alexander Lucas

While consumers are getting more excited about and focused on wearables, smart home devices and drones, the tech giants are heavily investing resources in another field: artificial intelligence (AI). While our perception of AI is still something from science fiction (watch Ex Machina; it is awesome), we are already surrounded by learning machines and evolving algorithms.

I think we generally expect AI to be a talking humanoid robot: a HAL, Ava or at least IBM's Watson (or worst case, Skynet). Yet we ignore that such applications already exist in some form in our digital assistants: Siri (Apple), Cortana (Microsoft), Alexa (Amazon) and Google Now. We can see their limitations and dismiss how far these applications have already come.

But beyond this consumer-facing rollout of AI, there has been a recent flurry of other activity in the artificial intelligence field.

Follow the money

The big tech giants are rapidly investing in different branches of artificial intelligence. Just in 2016 we have seen the following acquisitions:

  • Apple acquired Emotient (facial recognition of emotions)
  • Microsoft acquired Swiftkey (popular mobile learning keyboard)

Several groups have also set up AI labs in the United States over the last few months:

The fact that Elon Musk is investing in artificial intelligence despite his own deep misgivings about the threat it poses proves the race is on for more intelligent systems.

Breaking down the barriers

As well as the recent acquisitions and center openings, there have been a few newsworthy advances in the field.

In late January 2016, Google announced via an article in Nature that their AI program AlphaGo had defeated the European champion at the game Go. A computer mastering the game of Go has long been a benchmark in computing. In fact, Mark Zuckerberg had posted a few days before how the Facebook AI was getting close to beating human players. Apparently, not close enough.

Then in early February, U.S. regulators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration approved driverless cars, opening the roads up to Google’s self-driving system. That’s right—car software now counts as a driver. Hopefully the next time I utter choice words at my fellow drivers, it won't be recorded in my search history ...

AI opportunities for IT pros

Unsurprisingly, this increased investment in and attention to artificial intelligence has driven a huge demand for some high-level IT skill sets: deep learning research, data analysis, machine learning, to name a few. And this will likely continue to grow for some time as each improvement in artificial intelligence opens up new applications.

The downside for many across the country is that many of these jobs are clustered in the usual tech locations: Silicon Valley, New York and research institutions like Stanford and MIT.

Having a background in machine learning, however, will be useful across the country and world as manufacturers look to optimize their workflow, energy providers seek to gain efficiency and healthcare providers strive to provide better care.

Artificial intelligence is an exciting—and terrifying—field of study. If you have experience in the field and want to share your thoughts, please comment below.

A self-styled storyteller, Alexander Lucas loves to share his vast knowledge of tech, innovation and design trivia. TEKsystems’ resident video designer is also an avid history buff and writes about technology innovation through time.
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