IT’S TIME TO GET REAL ABOUT A.I.’S FUTURE, a subject in desperate need of discipline. The technology’s mind-blowing possibilities have apparently inebriated various seers, who take two routes to fantasyland: propagating boldly precise forecasts of jobs to be spawned and destroyed years hence, or spinning tales of A.I. transforming our world into a heaven (or hell). Instead, we wanted to confront the realities of how A.I. is changing business—minus the melodrama.
On the chief source of A.I.-induced anxiety—employment effects—the reality is that no one knows or can know what’s ahead, not even approximately. The reason is that we can never foresee human ingenuity, all the ways in which millions of motivated entrepreneurs and managers worldwide will apply rapidly improving technology. Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield predicted confidently in 1959 that mail would soon be delivered by packing letters into guided missiles, the wonder tech of the day. A growing economy meant more letters, and the future for postal workers seemed bright. It was, for a while. The possibility that mail would cease to be written on paper never occurred to Summerfield, though the necessary technologies for email, texting, and the cell network existed in rudimentary form or were being developed. We risk missing the boat in the same way with A.I.
The second reality to remember is that A.I.’s eventual uses will be determined largely by market forces. Earnest discussions of how A.I. can be directed to make the world a utopia miss that point. They recall RCA chief David Sarnoff’s long-ago prediction that the coming of color TV would enable people to see fine art in their homes. That sounded wonderful, but nobody wanted it for such high-minded uses. A.I. will be used by companies and consumers for countless practical purposes, most of them modest, and the cumulative effect can’t be foreseen. As we try to guess A.I.’s future, the key will be to think like self-interested people (including both good and bad guys) in the real world.
No bad guys here, though. These 25 examples of A.I. at work are beneficial, even inspiring—and they’re real. Click the images below to learn more. —Geoff Colvin
This article originally appeared in the November 1, 2018 issue of Fortune.