For decades, technology enthusiasts have heralded the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI) as key to an idyllic, robot-enabled future: and it seems that the technology has at last caught up with the hype, with a new AI "arms race" in play, according to The Economist.
Global tech giants like Google, Microsoft, IBM and Baidu are looking to AI for strategic advantage in processing and analysing the deluge of data generated by the world's 3.6 billion internet users.
The race to implement this new breed of smart systems that could act autonomously will be significant for business in the Asia-Pacific (APAC) region too, according to Hong Kong-based AI expert Tak Lo. He says that China and Japan will continue to be big players in this field. In particular, computer vision will continue to be of vital importance, and chatbots will swell in popularity. Artificial intelligence tops the list of 10 strategic tech trends for 2017, as composed by the research giant Gartner. “Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning have reached a critical tipping point and will increasingly augment and extend virtually every technology-enabled service, thing or application," Gartner says.
Meet Fergal Murphy - General Manager of IBM's Cognitive Solutions Team in Australia and New Zealand, which is tied to the state-of-the-art Watson super-computer. Murphy downplays any sense that the field has earned oracular status and is about to spark a revolution. Humans are still the kings of common sense and creativity, according to Murphy.
Nonetheless, he says, AI is incredibly useful. AI-armed computers excel at augmentation: sifting vast volumes of data and detecting patterns. The result can be much smarter decisions.
“We look at Watson as decision optimisation. It's actually helping bankers, staff make better decisions and more informed decisions by the fact that it's processing all these concepts," he says, alluding to ANZ's adoption of IBM cognitive computing, which means "robots" in the back office and improved advice processing.
In fact, the information delivered on the back of Watson's phenomenal breadth of vision can powerfully improve staff performance. Thanks to the cognitive powerhouse, 10-minute-plus wait times are shrunk to seconds: “a huge boost", he says.
Another bonus is Watson's ability to remove unconscious bias from procedure, something that's invaluable when implementing diversity strategies, Murphy says.
Hong Kong angel investor Tak Lo, who runs the AI start-up factory Zeroth, has been immersed in the potential of AI - though so far, few APAC start-ups have capitalised on AI's smart scope.
Regarding the effect of AI on area entrepreneurship, Lo says: “It's an easy thing to say: 'Tremendous impact, awesome, great!'"
Alas, the scene is “tremendously niche": it's dominated by face augmentation and chat-bots, such as the kind of banking interface enhancement developed by his portfolio start-up Clare, which touts a “complete conversational banking solution".
Through Zeroth, Lo is currently working with ten AI start-ups. Beyond his own accelerator, another AI start-up he admires is Singapore's Mimetic, which offers Evie, the tireless virtual assistant often mistaken for a real person.
Globally, the United States dominates the new AI frontier. “I mean: you take a look at Google, Amazon, Facebook - they're all trying to move to AI first," says Lo.
He says American companies have two advantages: a stronger innovation culture and an acquisitive streak - so there is a greater willingness to buy into AI.
APAC companies are less acquisitive by nature. Still, Lo says, the scene evolved fast in London and innovation in the APAC hedge fund space, which leans on machine learning, could drive a fast change.
Lo predicts that AI will be revolutionary, but at a subliminal level - because it works like magic.
Here are three APAC ventures that channel some of this AI magic:
The Taiwan-based advertising optimisation firm Appier addresses the opportunity posed by mounting complexity - people using multiple screens.
According to an Appier study, the “mobile-only" age is over. Increasingly, netizens are “post-mobile": tied to a slew of devices.
The study, based on 850 billion data-points from Appier-run campaigns, suggests that advertisers should expand their reach across the triad of gadgets most commonly used by consumers: smartphone, tablet and personal computer. Appier enables clients to do just that, promising to deliver the right ad to the right person at the right time.
Since it began in 2012, the smart start-up has garnered funding totalling US$30 million and grown exponentially, with offices dotted all over APAC and beyond: in Sydney, Singapore, Hong Kong, Ho Chi Minh City, Jakarta, Tokyo, Manila, Mumbai, New Delhi, Seoul and San Francisco.
The budding trans-national giant now serves more than 500 brands ranging from Nike and Heineken to L'Oreal and Ikea. On the back of Appier AI, another client - the Indian luxury hotel titan Taj - doubled its loyalty program registrations, while cutting the cost per click, Appier says.
Appier's success is anchored in human brainpower, with staff from tech titans including Google, Intel and Yahoo. Appier chief executive Chih-Han Yu spent a decade at Harvard and Stanford exploring AI in self-driving cars and robots.
Alongside his chief technology officer, Harvard scientist Joe Su, Yu had a crack at launching a mobile games startup, but soon discovered their clients were less into game play than artificial intelligence. So, probably for the better, AI became the double-act's future. Their so-called “CrossX AI" gives them their reach and clairvoyant-like understanding of device ownership.
Founded by ex-Googlers Mike Lei and Zhifei Li in 2012, the Google-backed, Beijing-based AI start-up Mobvoi fields a smartwatch called the Ticwatch, branded as a mix of elegance and intelligence.
The smart, suave timepiece boasts functions including voice activation, multi-language translation, “find my phone", “call Uber" and “tilt-to-wake".
Google was so wowed by Mobvoi that it took a minority stake in the start-up, as part of a $75 million fundraising round. Google development expert Don Harrison said, in an Oct 2015 statement, that Mobvoi “has developed some very unique speech and natural language processing technologies." Harrison is also reportedly impressed by Mobvoi's innovative strategy and early traction.
Google's endorsement brings a welcome boost to Mobvoi's clout, as its Android-based smartwatch contender is up against Apple's latest Series 2 effort, lauded for its lovely screen, robust battery life, and slick performance, among other qualities.
One question that would tax a super-computer: does the smartwatch market have much future? In 2016's third quarter, the market crashed.
In Mobvoi's favour, just like Appier, it has terrific human talent behind it. Chief technology officer Lei worked at Google Research, building speech-recognition software that evolved into part of Android's Jelly Bean release featuring voice command capability a la Siri. Likewise, Li, who has a computer science doctorate from America's first research university, Johns Hopkins, worked on Google Translate.
Core team members include AI experts, former Nokia staff, engineers and researchers from universities including Harvard, MIT, Cambridge and Tsinghua, and internet titans such as Yahoo Beijing, Baidu, and Tencent. Li is on a mission to reinvent voice search for wearable devices and go beyond watchmaking. In line, his team is addressing in-car experience and family robots that will show where your kids are and be “huggable" -- a bold departure from normal automata.
The ambitious start-up states on its “about us" page that over 60% of its staff are engineers; and that it believes that technology can change the world.
Melbourne-based Aipoly must be one of the worthiest start-ups on that Asia-Pacific AI map. Founded in August 2015, Aipoly offers an image-recognition app that lets the visually impaired understand their surroundings and move around independently.
The process is simple: the Aipoly user simply holds their smartphone over an object. Then the deep-learning app with a sound social motive declares what it is, aloud.
For instance, Aipoly can tell that someone is riding a bike, whether the person is blonde or brunette - and even whether they are scowling or smiling.
The first time some sources use Aipoly, they are ecstatic. Some cry with delight. Others rave about the sense of power and purpose it gives them.
Aipoly was devised by three diverse entrepreneurs: Italian futurist Alberto Rizzoli, Swedish computer scientist Simon Edwardsson and Australian roboticist Marita Cheng, who met while attending the Silicon Valley think tank-cum-college, Singularity University.
The experience flipped Cheng's perspective.
“Now, when I hear about an idea, I can see it through a lens of how can we scale it to impact a billion people," she told The Cairns Post.
Its unique lens lets Aipoly occasionally provide even more accurate and knowledgeable information than humans. According to Rizzoli, its capability extends to identifying exotic foods and clothing that are off his personal radar. Keen to shed further light, the Aipoly team is building even smarter vision AI that can “track the nutrition" of food you show it, recognise a species of flower or animal and reveal show-times when presented with a movie poster.
The Aipoly app on the market now recognises 1000 objects, but the team is developing an update that will raise the amount to 5,000 or more. In Rizzoli's view, there are no limits to what AI can achieve.
Clearly, APAC has a smattering of exceptional AI start-ups ranging from the pragmatic to the visionary. The field is crying out for extra funding, and it may arrive surprisingly quickly, spurred by hedge-fund innovation.
In time, AI will be everywhere, like electricity, according to the chief scientist at the Chinese web services company Baidu, Andrew Ng.
Sydney-based futurist Anders Sorman-Nilsson agrees. Anything that can be turned into a process will be automated, Sorman-Nilsson says, citing admin and menial work.
“Science fiction is becoming science fact," he continues, adding that the future is upon us because mainstream computing always absorbs artificially intelligent features.
Just look at the predictive analytics implanted in your GPS, he says. The function was originally deemed AI until it went mainstream.
According to Rizzoli, who calls AI “an incredible resource", it will automate processes from stock-trading to radiology, turbo-charging productivity.
But the catch, he adds, is greater inequality.
As mass-digitisation takes hold, the wannabe gainfully employed may need special traits that Sörman-Nilsson says will become increasingly treasured: creativity, empathy, and innovation, for instance. To retain relevance, human talent - in particular, those digital immigrants raised in an analogue world - must be retrained and up-skilled, he says. The lesson for humans? Keep refreshing your skillset. You're going to need it.