Kate Crawford discussing AI and its social impacts at SXSW 2017

AI: Astounding & Imminent

Typically, when I go to big conferences, I try and dabble a little bit in a variety of topics and spread myself thin to get a broad sense of what’s going on in the world. I expected I’d follow that strategy for my first ever trip to SXSW — but after attending my first couple of sessions, I knew that would not be the case this time. After becoming phenomenally energized early on by one topic in particular, I knew that I desperately wanted to soak in everything I could that the conference had to offer on that specific topic: Artificial Intelligence.

If there’s one takeaway I have from SXSW, it’s that AI is going to change the world in ways we can’t even yet fathom — and, even in the near-term, significant impacts to the business world and to society as we know it are pretty much inevitable. I’ve always been intrigued and impressed by the concept of AI, but I don’t think I’d actually internalized just how real and how viable it is until this conference, and how critical it is that we — as humans, as businesses, as citizens, as employees — educate ourselves on the topic so that it doesn’t come and bite us before we know it.

To level-set on definition, Artificial Intelligence is, essentially, machines having the power to think and act like humans. Although AI is often thought of in the context of robots that become smarter than humans and end up ruling us all, that’s not quite it — that’s just one articulation of horizon 50 of it that, frankly, we aren’t even close to, and there is so much to come before then (if ‘then’ even ends up playing out that way).

We are already well beyond the initial wave of Artificial Intelligence (more on the definition of AI, and on the debate on around said definition, to come in a future post), but I can, without too much pushback (again, more on this later), assert that early-stage AI has already been upon us for quite some time in the form of voice assistants (think Siri/Alexa), entertainment recommendation engines (think Netflix/Pandora), and purchase prediction (think the recommendations you get from Amazon).

As machines get better and better at emulating humans (through the ongoing efforts of brilliant computer engineers), the tasks that we as humans have to perform to accomplish our goals are going to change. I think this will come in stride as iterative change that we hardly notice on a day-to-day basis — this isn’t just going to spring itself upon us all at once.

As an analogy, think about when you got your first cell phone back in the late 90’s or early 2000’s. At the time, did it meaningfully change your life? Probably not. What about when texting was added? Still probably not. The internet? Yeah, this was a pretty big one — but when it was first added it was so slow you could hardly send an email in less than 20 minutes; its improvements until being useable were no doubt iterative. Apps? Touch ID? They were all cool features when they were added, but one by one probably didn’t meaningfully change how you went about your day. If you look at what you have now, however, in your iPhone/Echo/FitBit/whatever other technology you hold near and dear, and you think about how you’d have felt if all that in its current state had been available to you all of a sudden 20 years ago, you probably would have lost your mind.

All of that to say that, right now, we are at the ‘first cell phone’ stage of AI. My point is that we’re going to see improvements and new features come in gradually, and before we know it we’ll be at iPhone 7 stages and our lives will have changed at least to the tune of — and I would argue likely much more than — going from having a Motorola StarTac to having a fully-fledged baby computer in our hands that can understand us and talk to us like a human would.

There is a LOT to come. And there is so much to think about in terms of business, political, and societal implications — both exciting and terrifying. I have a million fragments of my mind to expand upon from my learnings in Austin (on everything from use cases to predicted impacts to biases within AI, and beyond), and I will, in due time.

In the meantime, let me sign off with something I read that made my borderline crazy level of curiosity on the topic feel at least somewhat validated: Mark Cuban thinks the world’s first trillionaire will come from AI. You can bet we’ll be seeing some AI pitches in Shark Tank episodes to come.