13 Jul 2018 AI is not sexy at all

Forget about all those miraculous things about Artificial Intelligence you’ve read in magazines. Machines defeat world’s best Go players. Machines beat poker professionals, write poems, surpass humans on IQ tests. Machines might even one day eradicate cancer. Mind-blowing, right? But so far from reality.

Believe it or not, AI is incredibly boring. In fact, AI infiltrates our daily lives without us even noticing.

For example, AI is behind the algorithm that recommends an additional article when you shop online, or helps your bank detect fraudulent use of your credit card. Even the humanoid voice that announces the air temperature, or the time of your next hairdresser appointment, is just another piece of sophisticated software, with all what it means of programming hours, cups of coffee, emptied beer cans and sleepless nights. Nothing magical there. It is just work. A lot of work.

Because this ant activity is not glamorous, because it does not quench our thirst for sensations, the marketing departments of large AI companies have put their creativity at work. And they have come up with truly inspirational stories, willingly relayed by a press that cares about circulation numbers. These articles create a wow effect, nurture fears and hopes, turning AI into a social phenomenon. Meanwhile, everybody has heard about AI, and, what’s worth, everybody seems to know what AI is.

The problem is that the image of AI conveyed to the public would better fit in a movie theatre or a video game, than in the business or technology columns of your preferred newspaper.

AI is much more prosaic than what you are given to hear. Algorithms that crunch gigantic amounts of data, find correlations, make predictions. Terabytes of documents scrutinized, analyzed, categorized. Highly secured data centers with endless rows of blinking servers. Truly boring. Astonishingly, this is exactly this boring stuff that helps improve our daily lives, not the miracles praised in press releases.

What we do at Cortical.io, for example, is nothing that appeals to the media nor the masses: we create intelligent systems that understand the meaning of text and help companies cope with the avalanche of text data they are producing day after day. Creating an engine that processes millions of contracts and automatically extracts key information does not sound sexy, right? But it speeds up the authorization process of your new lease agreement. Employees do not have to spend weeks in reviewing a daunting pile of documents, the system does it automatically and speedily for them. As an immediate consequence, the bank employees can focus on higher-value, much more rewarding tasks and better employ their own intelligence.

Correct: an intelligent system helps humans make a better use of their own intelligence and capacities. It does not take their jobs away, just the dull part of them.

So, the customer is happy, the employee is motivated, and the bank dramatically increases the efficiency of their contract analysis processes, which means lower operating costs and higher margins. Nothing here to shout from the rooftops, nevertheless something meaningful at a small scale, which might have a profound economical and societal impact as it spreads across the enterprise world.

Note that a Silicon Valley tech giant with an unlimited advertising budget and countless creative minds could transform such achievements in language understanding into impressive headlines. Why don’t they? Because, despite their thousands of engineers and billions in research investment, they have not come up so far with an efficient solution that is deployable in an enterprise environment. Cortical.io, with its short history and not much more than 20 employees, has.

But back to my point: it is about time to demystify AI. AI is not coming: AI is already here. AI is not menacing us with some kind of supernatural power: AI is silently working day after day to help humans live a better life. AI is not an ominous being that threatens to escape from our surveillance: AI is an accumulation of small, disparate systems that are programmed by humans to perform well-defined tasks. And just these ones.

The term AI, as a buzzword, has been so misused that it can now be considered as deprecated. It is charged with so many senses that it does not mean anything anymore. Maybe it is time to invent a new word?

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Author: Marie-Pierre Garnier,
VP Marketing & Communications
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