Northern Ireland could lead way in the advent of artificial intelligence
By Dr Joseph Reger, Fujitsu Fellow and Chief of Technology of Fujitsu EMEIA
On my most recent visit to Northern Ireland, I had the pleasure of visiting Catalyst Inc, a hub of creative enterprise. Affording views of the famous Harland & Wolff cranes and Belfast Harbour - home to the likes of Bombardier and Capita as well as exciting tech companies and start-ups - it's clear that while NI might be going through a period of flux and change, it is a region borne out of a rich heritage of innovation which continues to bustle with immense talent and potential.
As CTO for a global technology company, it's my job to recognise and leverage ICT capability to the benefit of the economy and ultimately to society. What we at Fujitsu have recognised is that with established expertise in computer science, Northern Ireland is in prime position to take advantage of - and lead - digital transformation in artificial intelligence (AI).
AI is a branch of ICT which attempts to build machines capable of intelligent behaviour. Machine kearning - the discipline of a machine being able to learn rather than being explicitly programmed - is the practical application of ICT to achieve this intelligent behaviour.
Currently the world is experiencing an AI Spring as the level of AI around us continues to grow. We have online shopping portals that recommend what to buy, cars with self-driving engines, winds turbines that predict maintenance needs and financial institutions that use AI to make investment decisions.
All of these applications work and they work for one reason - the machines are learning. And to learn, they are being trained with clear and comprehensive data.
In February, Ulster University announced a £4m investment in a Cognitive Analytics Research Lab (CARL).
As well as creating 12 new jobs, the lab is set to bring together businesses - ourselves included - industry and the government to drive research and enhance NI's international competitiveness.
The significance of a centre like this should not be underestimated. From leveraging the potential of government data to developing pioneering solutions across sectors, data analytics will contribute to the development of AI applications locally. It's exciting to think about the solutions that could be created.
Amongst other applications, our own 'AI Zinrai' system incorporates knowledge processing that can provide medical decision-making support and mathematic technology that can help manage air traffic.
While the economic benefits of AI are clear, other social implications should be part of the conversation. Just as our children are increasingly smarter than us when it comes to technology, AI will also become smarter. Regulatory measures should be considered to monitor its usage and impact and we need to teach AI systems a human moral framework while we are creating it.
Then there is the 'jobs question'. There is an ongoing debate about whether or not AI will create or diminish jobs. From our own experience, the potential workforce benefit is high. From data analytics to R&D, AI needs a highly skilled workforce and will create other skilled jobs elsewhere in the supply chain.
As such, a continued focus on STEM subjects and digital skills across the education system is paramount. Fujitsu has experienced the benefits of Northern Ireland's talented individuals for over 40 years. Harnessing this creative talent and working collaboratively on exciting new technologies such as AI and data analytics is to us a pivotal way in which Northern Ireland can return to the status of an economic powerhouse once more.