Artificial Intelligence – a Harbinger of Great Change and Re-skilling Opportunities

Going by the rapid progress that is being made in the field of Artificial Intelligence, soon, and yet arguably, it is likely that there will be very little left to justify the sobriquet, “artificial.” We wanted to bust the myth surrounding AI and get down to the brass-tacks. With that intent in mind, we spoke to George John, Artificial Intelligence-focused Investor, Advisor, and Board Director. He is based out of the Bay Area. A most experienced man in this field, who is also our Keynote speaker at the NASSCOM Big Data Summit, to be held later this month.

AI Applications – Where We Are

Successful use cases are replete in specific domains, but on the whole right now, much hand holding is required to make AI reach anywhere close to its avowed potential of super human competence. Having said that, the last five years have been exceptional. Various industries are currently using AI applications, which reinforces the idea that machine learning – and incredibly – is now a reality. The outcome and the pace at which it is happening, has been fast.

In Medical Research for instance, AI is actually being used to take up the role of physical investigators, examine medical conditions critically, and suggest the course of treatment, thereafter. Several experiments – and hitherto not possible – are being undertaken by Robots to get things done efficiently and effectively, at a pace which is quite remarkable. Those, in their 20s today, are still witnessing many areas where humans can easily trump machines. By the time these very same people reach 50s or even earlier, unimaginable new grounds would have been yielded to the latter, as competition intensifies.

Artificial Intelligence has seen creditable commercial applications in Finance and Advertising as well, both sectors which are characterized by mammoth-sized data generation, which provide hotbeds for such applications to proliferate. Inasmuch, Credit Scoring, which determines creditworthiness of individuals, is an area where AI has been most impactful in US. Similarly in Advertising, Direct Marketing has made rapid progress in AI adoption. It is common knowledge now that Google invests heavily in this technology and allied ones, to match ads being displayed with users’ online behaviour. Also, well documented is the granularity and precision bearing that has come to be associated with. Amazon is yet another example, which has invested heavily in digital automation in its distribution centres. Moreover and interestingly, sectors as diverse as the legal profession and farming too, have witnessed AI adoption. Right now in some of these areas, the applications may be very basic, but more powerful applications will soon emerge. 

From a Developing Nation’s Standpoint

AI Applications in African countries for instance, will be different from those in America. Perhaps, and as mentioned earlier, applications in farming that can predict weather conditions accurately (for example) will have a huge market in Africa. Naturally, these very same applications will also be used in American conditions, but the benefits to be reaped may be significantly higher in African conditions – say even up to 200%. The Valley is famous for its ability to iterate and achieve scale. In comparison, developing nations are still not able to provide a “frictionless” environment. This reference was made from a compliance and regulatory standpoint.

Displacement of Labour – How Real? 

This fear is as old as Luddites. Yet, it is real. Arguably, repetitive jobs are the most exposed, but inevitably, “knowledge workers” will also not be spared. Difficult as it may be to put a number to it, but in all likelihood the number of jobs lost will be in be tens of thousands, remarked George. To cite an example – Wealth Advisors in US. These jobs are increasingly getting automated and machines are able to do what humans can. Even better. Certainly, machines can handle much larger volumes. These jobs may not get redundant right away, and for a certain period of time, technology will even aid humans in realising greater volumes to increase outreach, till such time they are phased out completely. In turn, new jobs will be created. Admittedly, the job losses will be disproportionately higher. Blue collared America stressed as they are, and often having to work 2 or more jobs, will be faced with a situation where they can be trained with newer skills which are more advanced. Forces of capitalism and socialism will be at interplay, and eventually market balancing realities will prevail. The fear of job losses is real, but it is not as if that nations will be caught off-guard. This is an area of focus right now and enough thoughts are being put into it.

The Trust Factor

Again we go back to the example of Financial Advisors. Notwithstanding the huge element of trust that exists between advisors and policy buyers – can that be easily replicated? Before e-commerce broke new grounds, people would go to departmental stores to purchase. Over time and unarguably, online shopping is making rapid progress to trump old buying behaviour, George reasoned. Typically what happens, is that the shift happens in stages. Radical as it might be, there is always that intervening period when both online and offline modes are existent and complement each other.

Wearing Two Hats

George is known to wear two hats – tech evangelizer and investor. So, we asked him about his experience in playing both the roles and often at the same time. These roles, diverse as they seem to be are not really incompatible, he said. George spends a substantive amount of his time in talking to technologists, and it is an enriching experience to sit with them and make them understand the nuances of business, commercial viability and such other. Increasingly, it has been a rewarding journey as the gap continues to diminish. In other words people who create technology are also getting to know about various aspects of business. It is a healthy trend.

His Vision for India

He is extremely hopeful that AI and allied technologies will find ready adoptability in India to address the nation’s challenges. Currently, the pressing need is to leverage technology and take the nation from a situation of “resource poor” to one of “resource abundant.” Today the challenge facing the world is about addressing the yawning gap between haves and have-nots. Perhaps, technology can be put to better use to address income inequality and create an environment of balanced growth. Despite his vast area of knowledge, George was humble enough to say that India is a great country and his knowledge was primarily restricted to the American market, so at best he could only make generic comments about what will work here.

With those powerful words coming from a very knowledgeable and forward looking individual, we signed off with a promise to catch up later this month in Hyderabad at the Big Data & Analytics Summit. 

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