In London last month, Arabian Business was treated to a behind-the-scenes explanation of how in March Google’s AlphaGo computer programme thrashed the world’s best player at the ancient board game Go.
The match represented a breakthrough in artificial intelligence (AI) research being undertaken by Google’s DeepMind since the start-up was acquired for a reported $400m in 2014.
Go involves two contestants moving black and white stones on a grid with the aim of seizing the most territory. The game is fiendishly complex, with an almost infinite number of possible moves. Nonetheless, DeepMind’s computerised version beat Lee Sedol, holder of 18 international titles, 4-1.
Most ground breaking was that the machine won on a radical move on the fifth line of the grid, where few professionals bother to play because accumulated learning has demonstrated it is too easy to lose territory there.
DeepMind co-founder Demis Hassabis told an audience the software had led humans to reconsider how they played the game. “People have actually learned from the computer since the match and are rethinking centuries of established strategy.”
The impact is staggering. But so too is Google’s plans to use AI in its crusade to democratise access to information and simplify living. For example, its soon-to-be launched Google Assistant, an improved version of Google Now, which answers questions and completes tasks, deploys AI software called Machine Learning, which enables computers to become smarter over time as they build up an artificial memory of information to communicate naturally with users.
But it is not all about revolutionising the way we live. There are clear commercial opportunities. Google just doesn’t make those its headlines.
First, the more Google knows about internet users’ habits and interests, the more effective partner advertising will be, swelling its advertising revenues.
Second, AI will help grow Google’s cloud computing business. The value of machine learning lies in being able to spot patterns and trends that companies can apply to areas such as sales forecasting and risk management to grow their revenue. Companies own vast amounts of data but few know how to use it. With AI, Google can make sense of that data for customers.
It has a long way to go though. Google lingered in fourth place in the cloud infrastructure services market in the second quarter of 2016, after Amazon, Microsoft and IBM, according to Synergy Research Group.
For the world’s biggest technology firms, AI is the secret weapon in the drive to monetise data. Market intelligence firm Tractica forecasts that annual worldwide AI revenue will grow from $643.7m in 2016 to $36.8bn by 2025. AI is expected to transform consumer, enterprise and government markets across the world, so those in the Middle East had better take note.
This is a region that could generate unprecedented levels of data in the coming years and it will need to know exactly how to process that to drive growth. AI will be of huge interest — if it hasn’t already piqued the interest of the likes of Mohamed Alabbar, whose $1bn e-commerce venture Noon is already set to shake up the sector.
A robot-powered future may arrive earlier than anticipated in some industry sectors. For some, this is alarming, but for many, it is game changing.