Software Is Eating the World … Quickly and Slowly

by Diane Francis

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Silicon Valley, or the Greater Bay Area, is the 18th largest economy in the world, more than half the size of Canada’s economy and bigger than Switzerland, Saudi Arabia or Turkey. This is because the region has become the world leader in research and development of emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics, software and virtual reality.

“Software is eating the world,” said Silicon Valley investor Marc Andreessen famously in 2011. It was controversial but prescient.

Five years later, software-driven machines and drones perform surgery, write news stories, compose music, translate, analyze, wage war, guard, listen, speak and entertain. The world’s biggest box office hits — animated films such as “Frozen” or special effects in Hollywood blockbusters like “Star Wars” — are made using software.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is a phrase to describe software-powered smart machines or programs. And, to date, the superstar is Watson, named after the founder of IBM. It’s a bunch of processors, the size of three pizza boxes that devours and computes data at warp speed. To prove its superhuman capabilities, Watson’s team of engineers five years ago won the longest running, and brainiest, quiz game on television called Jeopardy!

The game requires contestants to comprehend natural language and answer questions in virtually all fields of human endeavour, often involving nuance and puns, within seconds. To prepare, all of Wikipedia’s entries, along with periodicals and other data, were fed into Watson.

Watson obliterated the human contestants with its flawless memory, instant pattern recognition and its probability algorithms that yielded correct answers within split seconds. This wasn’t just about speed, but about a machine that thinks. For example, the question put was what clothing might a young girl wear on an operatic ship? Watson answered immediately: “What is H.M.S. Pinafore,” the title of Gilbert & Sullivan’s opera.

Since then, Watson has trained to be a medical doctor at several hospitals. At Sloan Kettering Hospital, Watson helps oncologists diagnose and prescribe by reviewing 600,000 medical evidence reports, 1.5 million patient records and clinical trials, and two million pages of text from medical journals, to benchmark and recognize patterns. Patient symptoms, family history, genetics and medication history are thrown into the mix in order to develop a customized treatment plan.

In 2014, Watson also demonstrated superhuman analytical aptitude. The machine was asked to sum up the 10 most common arguments, pro and con, regarding the proposed and contentious Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to Texas. It scanned and retained all the world’s news sources, journals and periodicals and within minutes was able to rank the top ten pro and top ten con arguments in a sentence each.

Within five to ten years, boards of directors, corporations, governments, researchers and knowledge workers will have AIs on their desktops or mobiles as their principle synthesis and analytical tool. The next generation of AIs, already in development, will be capable of anticipating needs and wants, suggesting solutions, predicting outcomes and identifying our emotions.

Portions of the world and economies are adopting to such advances more quickly than others. Robots or drones are deployed in America’s factories, operating rooms, sales operations, retail outlets, security systems, warehouses and, in Japan, as hotel concierges and caregivers. They are also employed as military weapons and bombers.

How quickly all these looming changes will be adopted will vary from country to country and sector to sector. But the consensus in Silicon Valley is that, by 2030, fossil fuels will be replaced by renewables (combined with cheap storage) and driverless vehicles, or robots on wheels, will be replacing traditional vehicles. The sensors, computers and lasers that guide driverless cars are elements that are already being partially incorporated by automakers. By then, Germany and other countries will be fully dependent on renewables.

The most innovative jurisdictions so far are the United States, Singapore, Germany and Denmark, particularly in their adoption of renewables, electric cars and driverless vehicles to improve traffic flows and eliminate parking, roads expansions and emissions.

“On a normal operating highway, cars take up a tiny fraction of the space,” explained Google co-founder Sergey Brin when his team unveiled the driverless car in 2010. “Mostly, it’s all air between you and the car in front of you, to the sides of you. Self-driving cars can chain together and use the highways far more efficiently.”

There is little doubt that the genie is out of the bottle and the world must adapt and adopt technologies even if they destroy the old to create new products, jobs and business models. Clearly, the implications are, at once, potentially frightening but also immensely beneficial.

That is why Andreessen’s 2011 warning that “software is eating the world” must be tempered with what he wrote three years later: “There still is an enormous gap between what many people do in jobs today and what robots and AI can replace, and there will be for decades.”

First published National Post August 22, 2016

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