A.I. is “the most important project humanity will ever work on”

January 23, 2020, 2:03 PM UTC

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Good morning, Data Sheet readers. Fortune writer Aric Jenkins here, subbing in for Adam, and I have a question for you:

What is the most important invention in the history of humanity?

It’s a broad, no-right-or-wrong-answers question you may have pondered late at night with friends at some point. I certainly have. Our discussion ranged from the medium of writing to the printing press, from the steam engine to electricity, and even fairly recent developments (hello again, people, I’m talking to you through the Internet).

One answer I always found particularly fascinating is the control of fire. This simple innovation completely reshaped the early human experience. Hundreds of thousands of years after the invention of controlled fire, some would argue it’s still the most impactful technology of all time.

But that soon might change, according to some evangelists—very smart and successful evangelists, I might add. Here’s a choice passage from Fortune‘s latest cover story, by my colleague Jeremy Kahn, on artificial intelligence:

“This is about capturing the next great pool of wealth in technology,” says Craig Le Clair, an analyst at Forrester Research, the tech analytics firm. He compares A.I. to electricity in its potential impact. Sundar Pichai, [Microsoft CEO Satya] Nadella’s rival CEO at Alphabet, has gone further, calling A.I. the most important project humanity would ever work on, “more profound than fire.”

Imagine being able to monetize the invention of fire. Now imagine missing out on the chance to monetize fire.

So, yes, the A.I. hype is real. So much so that Fortune decided to devote an expansive special report on it in our brand-new, beautifully redesigned print magazine that hit newsstands earlier this week. Inside the pages are six deep dives that cover various facets of the technology from natural-language processing to TikTok in China to human resource departments’ utilization of A.I.—for better or worse.

I’ll leave you with one last note on the theme of “most important technologies”: Artificial intelligence is well on its way in the form of “narrow A.I,” the limited but skillful tech that makes tools like Alexa or the iPhone’s facial recognition possible. 

As Jeremy notes in his story, “the application of narrow A.I. will add some $13 trillion to the global economy by 2030, an amount that (the McKinsey Global Institute) says would make the technology more impactful than the steam engine was in the 1800s.”

Aric Jenkins

Twitter: @aricwithan_a

Email: aric.jenkins@fortune.com

This edition of Data Sheet was curated by Aaron Pressman.


A handful. People who prefer the older style of iPhone will get a refreshed model likely in March, Bloomberg reports. Apple is working on a sequel to the iPhone SE that will resemble the iPhone 8 with a 4.7-inch screen. Coming a little sooner, Lenovo's Motorola unit said it would start taking preorders for its foldable Razr phone beginning on Jan. 26, with shipments for the $1,500 device starting on Feb. 6.

Getting icy down in hell. Amazon released a real, comparable number for one of its units. The e-commerce giant on Wednesday disclosed that Amazon Music has more than 55 million subscribers, just behind Apple Music's 60 million but still less than half Spotify's total.

Press 1 for more options. The county that includes Seattle will hold a municipal election starting on Wednesday that allows voting online or via smartphone. Voters in the King County Conservation District Board of Supervisors election previously had to go online to request that they be mailed a paper ballot, which they then had to fill out and mail back. Only 3,500 people, less than 1% of eligible voters, participated in that system last year.

Zoom a zoom. On Wall Street, IBM reported fourth quarter results better than analysts expected. Revenue of $21.8 billion increased 0.1% (pay attention to the decimal place on that one), the first sales growth in more than a year. Shares of IBM, up 16% over the past year, gained 3% on Wednesday.

Vibe check. Some job cuts in tech world to report. TripAdvisor, based in my own hometown of Needham, Mass., is cutting about 200 jobs, or 5% of its workforce, as it seeks to improve profitability. And Playful Studios in McKinney, Texas, is making "significant layoffs" as it deals with slow business. Co-founder Paul Bettner is best known for the game Words With Friends produced by an earlier company he started and sold to Zynga.

A little Q&A. While we've filled in for Adam lately at the top of the newsletter, Fortune's executive editor has been busy working on some deeper stories. In his lengthy conversation with Alphabet and Google CEO Sundar Pichai, it sounds like Pichai is quite satisfied with the current corporate structure that has Google as one of multiple units under the Alphabet umbrella.

"It has allowed us to not have a single management team try to scale and deal with many different separate areas," he told Adam. "And how we need to approach each of these areas sometimes can be very, very different. They are different businesses with different time horizons. Alphabet allows us to pursue some of the other areas with maybe different structures we need."


As we mentioned in this space back in November, some strange and unsettling problems are cropping up with the Global Positioning Satellite system. Fortune's Katherine Dunn took a deep dive into some of the incidents and found worrisome signs that things may get even worse for the shippers who depend on GPS.

In recent years, GPS has become so reliable and so ubiquitous that you can forget it’s even there—much less that it can fail. But it’s surprisingly easy, it turns out, to knock the system into disarray. The shipping industry, meanwhile, appears underprepared to cope with breakdowns and unwilling to invest in self-defense in the absence of the kind of Exxon Valdez–like disaster it has so far been fortunate to avoid. Rick Hamilton, GPS information analysis team lead at the U.S. Coast Guard Navigation Center, says shippers and governments alike face an existential question: “How much risk are you willing to take to avoid spending a whole lot of money?”


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In 1930, Fortune published its first-ever issue, featuring the goddess Fortuna and her wheel on the cover. This year, on our 90th anniversary, we’re celebrating with a new Fortune. Here’s what’s in store for you:


If you’re interested to learn how some of the biggest, most influential companies are strategizing about artificial intelligence, come to Fortune’s Brainstorm A.I. conference in Boston on April 27-28, 2020. A.I. is a game-changing technology that promises to revolutionize business, but it can be confusing and mysterious to executives. The savviest leaders know how to cut through the deluge of A.I. buzzwords and reap the technology’s benefits.  
Attendees of this invite-only conference can take part in cutting-edge conversations with top corporate execs, leading A.I. thinkers, and power players. Among them: U.S. Chief Technology Officer Michael Kratsios; Accenture CEO Julie Sweet; Land O’Lakes CEO Beth Ford; Siemens U.S. CEO Barbara Humpton; Royal Philips NV CEO Frans van Houten; Landing AI founder and CEO Andrew Ng; Robust.AI founder and CEO Gary Marcus; and top machine learning experts from Bank of America, Dow, Verizon, Slack, Zoom, Pinterest, Lyft, and MIT. You can request an invitation.


You probably don't remember the old Saturday Night Live routine about the land shark. It was a hoot. Now it's no joke, as scientists in Australia say they have discovered several new species of the ocean predator that have grown stubby legs to walk on land, if only briefly.

Aaron Pressman

On Twitter: @ampressman

Email: aaron.pressman@fortune.com

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