Why This Skeptic Believes Artificial Intelligence is Worth the Effort

Updated: Oct 07, 2016 1:00 PM UTC

I’m a buzzword skeptic. “Unicorn,” for example, a rare private company valued at more than $1 billion, is a description that outwore its welcome once there were so many of them. The “Internet of things” and “smart cities” strike me as cleverer marketing slogans than descriptions of trends.

In other words, I need convincing that the latest hot topic in Silicon Valley is worth the effort to understand. Reading Roger Parloff’s insightful feature in the current issue of Fortune, “Why Deep Learning Is Suddenly Changing Your Life,” I became convinced about the catch-all phrase artificial intelligence and its subset fields of study, including machine learning and deep learning, also knowns as deep neural nets.

There isn’t space here to do justice to this complex topic. But one quote from Parloff’s masterful story might convince you to take the time to go deeper. In discussing how thoroughly artificial intelligence will change how companies operate, Parloff quotes Baidu Research’s Andrew Ng comparing AI’s strategic importance to the Internet itself. Then Ng goes further. “AI is the new electricity,” he tells Parloff. “Just as 100 years ago electricity transformed industry after industry, AI will now do the same.”

Examples abound. Jean-Pascal Tricoire, CEO of energy-equipment maker Schneider Electric, says AI software is built into its products, performing efficiency and life-saving functions like predicting when machines will break. Anne Wojcicki, CEO of genetics analysis firm 23andMe, says state-of-the-art machine learning algorithms are built into her company’s offerings. (I interviewed both Thursday on a panel at the massive developer conference hosted by Salesforce, itself an enthusiastic proponent of AI.)

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Even companies that tend not to talk about their inner workings are keen to show their machine-learning prowess, as evidenced by this chock-full-of-details look into how Apple infuses the technology beyond its Siri virtual assistant. Lastly, there is this gem from Parloff’s feature: During a recent 83-minute earnings call for Nvidia, whose graphic chips aid deep-learning computations, the term “deep learning” came up 81 times.

Still not convinced this is paradigm-shifting stuff? Then you’re more skeptical than I am.