Don't fear AI as it's here to stay right now
The chances are you are already using Artificial Intelligence in your daily life, whether you know it or not. Of course, you might not categorise lifestyle services like Amazon, Netflix and Spotify as AI, but it is powerful AI that enables them to track your film preferences, past purchases and musical tastes and offers you remarkably accurate recommendations of other things you might like.
In short, AI is no longer just hype. It's here. And it is not just the global tech and consumer brands using it - local companies are using intelligent software in their business, including AdoreBoard (social media analysis), Axial3D (surgery support) and Kainos (in award winning work for the Driver & Vehicle Safety Agency).
AI is more accessible than ever thanks to the development of hardware and cloud systems, by the likes of Microsoft, Google and Amazon, that enable technologists and non-technologists to use machine learning in a meaningful way, without major start-up or operational costs.
These low barriers to entry create an opportunity for regions like NI, but the rapid development of AI has also created a global skills deficit, which means there are not enough people with the understanding to know whether a problem they are facing is a good candidate for AI, or with the skills to implement the solution.
This is also a significant challenge here, but one which represents an opportunity to create a dynamic local AI industry - if government, academia and industry collaborate in a timely fashion. We can't afford to be a late adopter of AI as, unlike previous technology innovations, research has shown that laggards won't catch up when it comes to AI exploitation.
All of these topics will be discussed at the sixth annual BelTech Conference in Belfast in May where a range of local and global software practitioners and entrepreneurs will come together to hear from experts in the field.
Software engineering remains a core focus of BelTech and, with the rise of AI, we are focused on solving problems in an efficient and intelligent way, not on using the technology for the sake of it. We'll be challenging software professionals to think carefully about how, and what, they are doing and the wider implications of their work.
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A significant challenge with AI is whether those who are developing solutions are being ethically mature in their approach. The lower barriers to access for AI, and digital platforms generally, creates a need for us all to be responsible in our approach to creating software solutions. Just because something is possible, doesn't mean you should do it. As technologists, we tend to be optimistic about potential, but technology can be abused and AI is no exception. The furore around Cambridge Analytica's work for Facebook is one of many recent examples of this.
However, as with digital, it's likely that AI will increasingly underpin all fields of endeavour. I'm not sure I'd go as far as Google's CEO Sundar Pichai, who said recently that AI could be more important to the future of humanity than electricity or fire. But it's hugely important that our new talent and existing workforce have a foundational understanding of what AI is, its potential and how to use it effectively.
As with digital technology generally, it's important we don't focus solely on basic use - we need to nurture the next generation of creators. Simply being very effective consumers of technology is not a suitable ambition for our children or our region - even though this, sadly, seems to be the focus of our education system. Some people still see AI as being the realm of the university researchers, but the big opportunity is in applying the technology to business problems. This has already been recognised by economic superpowers like China and, locally, it is imperative that we think about the impact and application of AI across jobs, infrastructure, services, education, investment attractiveness, and wider society.
The lack of a digital strategy for the region - or indeed a functioning government - hampers our ability to respond to the opportunity and threat of AI. Other regions are already investing in education, skills and infrastructure and are deploying AI-based services for the benefit of citizens, and the effective delivery of public services. Northern Ireland clearly has the talent and potential to make an impact in AI, so let's make sure that we are one of the early adopters.
- For more information on BelTech 2019, go to www.beltech.co