Artificial Intelligence (AI) is one of the five most important disruptors affecting everyone and everything on the planet, interacting with each other in complex ways, for better and for worse.

What is It?

AI is the simulation of human intelligence processes by machines, especially computer systems, and its operational use is multiplying across all industries and disciplines. Amir Husain notes that AI is “the overarching science that is concerned with intelligent algorithms, whether or not they learn from data.”

AI is often described interchangeably with two popular terms that are, in reality, subsets of AI itself. These include machine learning and deep learning.

Machine learning, as a subset of overall AI,  involves applications learning from data algorithms without direct programming or instruction from human beings. It’s pretty wild to consider; the machine actually takes the data it’s being fed and runs with it, getting “smarter” and increasingly more complex in its thinking through an iterative journey that has no clear boundaries.

Deep learning, itself a specific subset of machine learning, concerns the layers upon layers of artificial neural networks (essentially, sets of algorithms) that have demonstrated capability in very accurate image and sound recognition and the processing of natural languages.  

You might also hear the phrase cognitive computing tossed about. This refers to the overall field of work seeking to apply machine learning techniques that are inspired by the human brain. Other AI subsets, independent of machine learning and deep learning, include symbolic logic–the use of rules engines, expert systems and knowledge graphs. You likely don’t see as many headlines about this particular subset.

Where is It?

Looking for daily AI in action? Your smartphone features “portrait mode” that automatically uses a large aperture to help keep the background out of focus by using a narrow depth of field so the subject being photographed is the only thing in focus. Before long, our phones will delight us with mixed and virtual reality features.

If you use an iPhone, you’re probably besties with Apple’s personal assistant, Siri, who uses machine-learning technology to get smarter and better able to predict and understand our requests. Then there’s Amazon’s Alexa, who responds to our speech by turning on music, setting alarms, and performing countless other household tasks.

Got social media? From the feeds that you see in your timeline to the notifications that you receive from these apps, everything is curated by AI. AI takes all your past behavior, web searches, interactions, and everything else that you do when you’re online and tailors the experience just for you. Amazon’s overall algorithms continue to use machine learning to more accurately predict what we want to buy based on our online behavior.

The online ad industry uses AI to not only track user statistics but serve us ads based on those statistics. Without AI, marketers would show random ads to users with no connection to their preferences whatsoever. AI has become so successful in determining our interests and serving us ads that the global digital ad industry has crossed $250 billion dollars, with the industry projected to exceed $300 billion by year’s end.

Netflix analyzes billions of records to suggest movies and shows that you might like based on your previous reactions and choices of content. Pandora’s A.I. sorts through 400 musical characteristics to make spot-on song recommendations. And whether you are using Google or Apple Maps for navigating, calling an Uber, or booking a flight, you are using AI.

Play video games? Any game that you play has some sort of AI element to it. Often, you start against AI-powered bots and then move on to real players. Even when you are playing a single person story mode game, you are playing against AI bosses. If you are playing racing games, you are racing against AI bots.

If you’re in the military, or watch shows such as Madame Secretary, you’re probably acquainted with the proliferation of AI-empowered smart drones. And we all know that smart cars are coming, even if our actually driving one remains years away.

The Upside

Machine learning and deep learning are presenting some amazing breakthroughs, such as detecting deadly forms of ovarian cancer. It’s gearing up to use EKG data to measure our health, expedite the development of new drugs, and detect suicide risk for LGBTQ youth. And as this article notes, AI can “strengthen climate predictions, enable smarter decision-making for decarbonizing industries from building to transport, and work out how to allocate renewable energy.” Doctors are using AI and virtual reality (VR) to improve prosthetic limbs.

There’s a significant shortage of professionals trained in machine learning, combined with a high demand as businesses seek to leverage AI for everything ranging from real-time customer experience snapshots and solving customer pain points, to efficiency, to research and development. College and graduate students who go into this field might be able to write their own salary tickets for years to come.

The Downside

Like any disruptive technology, there are downsides with AI that must be considered. As noted in my foundational blog on algorithims, even the smartest machines can make algorithmic errors that lead to bias, discrimination, or smart cars making the wrong decision with fatal implications. Our privacy continues to erode. The more algorithm-fed machines learn, the more they can learn about us, and who knows where that information is spread (to our employers? to our health care insurance companies? to the IRS or the police?).

And there’s, of course, the risk of unemployment or underemployment for those skilled in jobs more efficiently and effectively done by AI. All professionals need to embrace a mindset of constant upskilling and lifelong learning.

So…What to Do?

In general, given that no single governmental entity, company, or philanthropist has the ambition or bandwidth to ensure the AI behemoth produces more good than harm, it falls upon individuals to exert whatever influence we have in the face of AI disruption. Here’s some mindfulness tips to get started:

  1. Balance the dynamics of an increasingly AI world by tuning into the mystical. Burn incense, listen to eastern meditation music, and practice yoga.
  2. Be aware of clinging to particular expectations of what AI can and can’t do for you. It’s already capable of a lot, as noted above, but don’t expect to wake up tomorrow in the world of The Jetsons.
  3. Seek to better understand how your company, clients, or school are using AI to make things better; and figure out how you can contribute.
  4. Do your homework to learn what skills you need to be constantly updating to remain relevant in an increasingly AI global economy.
  5. Tune in to how AI “digital storytelling” shows up in quality content; and, if you’re a storytelling of any sort, learn how you can begin to leverage some of these tools.
  6. If your company is doing cool things with AI, help ensure customers “know the story” of the cutting edge approaches that are helping to serve them with excellence. Be a brand ambassador!