The AI Revolution: Why You Need to Learn About Deep Learning

October 5, 2016, 11:00 PM UTC
Professional 'Go' Player Lee Se-dol Plays Google's AlphaGo - Last Day
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - MARCH 15: Demis Hassabis, co-founder of Google's artificial intelligence (AI) startup DeepMind. speaks during a press conference after finishing the final match of the Google DeepMind Challenge Match against Google's artificial intelligence program, AlphaGo, on March 15, 2016 in Seoul, South Korea. Lee Se-dol is playing a five-match series against a computer program developed by a Google, AlphaGo. (Photo by Jeon Heon-Kyun-Pool/Getty Images)
Photograph by Pool—via Getty Images

We’re taking a break today from the election and corporate scandals to do something that most leaders–in fact, most people–generally, don’t do often enough: Thinking great big thoughts about how technology will change our lives. Many CEOs tell me their greatest fear is being blindsided by a competitor they never even thought of as a competitor, threatening to make the CEO’s business irrelevant by using technology and a business model the CEO hadn’t imagined. It’s a main challenge now — simply imagining what might be possible as technology advances ever faster.

That’s why I urge you to read Roger Parloff’s new cover story on deep learning, how it’s changing our lives, and how, as he says, it “will soon transform corporate America,” and business globally for that matter.

This is the technology powering the hugely improved speech recognition in so many products, including the Google Home device introduced yesterday as the company’s answer to Amazon’s Echo. Roger notes that Google Translate now “renders spoken sentences in one language into spoken sentences in another for 32 pairs of languages, while offering text translations for 103 tongues, including Cebuano, Igbo, and Zulu.” Deep learning is why software is now better than humans at pattern recognition and will soon read x-rays, for example, better than radiologists do; maybe it does so already. It’s critical to the development of self-driving cars. It’s why search engines can now distinguish pictures of dogs from pictures of wolves.

Remember that just five years ago, technology performed such tasks poorly or not at all. What’s happening now is a sudden explosion of change built on 60 years of computer science. Computing power’s steady advance combined with specific new chip designs, fast-improving algorithms, and virtually limitless data available online are together sparking “deep learning’s Cambrian explosion,” says Frank Chen, a partner at the Andreessen Horowitz venture capital firm.

We’ve all been reading a lot about artificial intelligence (AI), but we now must understand finer distinctions. Within AI is a set of techniques called machine learning, enabling computers to get better at tasks with practice. And within machine learning is deep learning, involving algorithms by which computers train themselves using multi-layered neural networks and vast quantities of data. If you don’t really understand that, you’d better read the article.

Many business leaders probably underestimate the significance of what’s happening. As Roger explains:

“Indeed, corporations just may have reached another inflection point. ‘In the past,’ says Andrew Ng, chief scientist at Baidu Research, ‘a lot of S&P 500 CEOs wished they had started thinking sooner than they did about their Internet strategy. I think five years from now there will be a number of S&P 500 CEOs that will wish they’d started thinking earlier about their AI strategy.’”

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Even the Internet metaphor doesn’t do justice to what AI with deep learning will mean, in Ng’s view. ‘AI is the new electricity,’ he says. ‘Just as 100 years ago electricity transformed industry after industry, AI will now do the same.’”

Are you fully imagining what deep learning might mean in your business? For all of us who give the same unsatisfactory answer, this new cover story will help us meet today’s crucial challenge of imagination.

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