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From Clippy to Cortana: The Human Face of AI

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If there’s one thing everyone agrees on, it’s that artificial intelligence is going to change the world. Exactly how it’s going to do that is still a matter of contention – not even Musk and Zuckerberg can agree on whether we’re facing a robot uprising or an AI uplifting. But AI stands to be the biggest catalyst for societal change since the cell phone, and it won’t be in the ways most people think.

Yes, Sophia the Robot will continue to attend conferences, cause waves on Twitter and become friends with celebrities. Yes, AI will find new games at which to beat human players. The most promising developments won’t come from advancements in processing power, but from the ways in which we improve the ability to interact with the machines…and each other.

The great convergence

As major investments are made into automation and cognitive systems, machine learning technologies are experiencing a boom. Advances in natural language processing and speech recognition have taken us from the days of Clippy, the office assistant for Microsoft Office (remember him?) to more impressive virtual assistants like Siri, Cortana and Alexa.  And with AI starting to outpace humans in reading comprehension tests, the limits of what these virtual assistants can do are going to keep expanding at an exponential pace.

Plenty has already been written about iPhone X’s game-changing Face ID software, but don’t be fooled by the early bugs. It’s clear that facial and image recognition tech is a game-changer rather than a gimmick, especially with Microsoft opening up its image recognition technology to users.

Then of course, there’s the big daddy itself – brain-machine interfaces like Elon Musk’s Neuralink or Facebook’s proposed typing technology. The proposed use cases are mostly medical at this point – allowing people with limited mobility to move prosthetic limbs for example – but it’s easy to see just how revolutionary being able to manipulate the world around you with your mind can be.

What all of this means is that we’ll eventually be able to have full conversations with robots. But think beyond the possibility of robot romance and the real potential for AI becomes clear – how it can even the playing field in terms of access to services and opportunities.

African AI in action

Digital platforms are built on artificial intelligence. Known as human-machine interfaces (HMIs), these platforms allow us to give machines instructions – or communicate with each other.

Now, HMIs themselves are nothing new – they’re everything from your parents’ old CRT computer to your touch screen phone to the ticket machine at your local cinema. But when you consider the convergence of technologies like the above, suddenly we’re able to redefine the possibilities of what our digital platforms can do.

Past developments in HMIs have allowed us to connect in ways we never could’ve dreamed of. Want to chat to a doctor in Canada from the comfort of your own couch? No problem. Watch a lecture by Harvard professors while sitting in a one-bedroom shack in Khayelitsha? Done. Work in an office in Perth without even stepping foot in Australia? Old news, right?

Alright, now take the interfaces we use for these tasks and add the ability to process different languages as well as a human can. And track your eye movements. Oh, and recognise your face. Suddenly, you’ve got something that can do a lot more.

Imagine being able to walk into your nearest pharmacy and getting a diagnosis from a specialist, all by stepping into a booth and getting your retinas scanned. Or, a virtual assistant that not only gives you access to information, but builds personalised teaching plans, all in your home language.

The smarter and more powerful AI becomes, the more access people get to often life-changing services and opportunities. Already, smartphones have helped millions get access to education, jobs, and financial stability they never had 20 years ago. Across Africa, mobile technologies have brought improved healthcare to remote and underserviced areas.

If sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, then machine learning might be the magic wand we need to solve some of life’s most pressing problems. It’s time to think beyond robots and cyborgs, and start thinking purpose-driven AI.

What role do you foresee AI-fuelled communication tech playing in your industry?