For decades, science fiction has portended the arrival of artificial intelligence, typically as a threat. That’s a perception today’s champions of the technology are working against, and one of the driving forces behind a four-year, $5 million global cognitive computing competition, The IBM Watson AI XPRIZE (ai.xprize.org). The competition seeks to crowdsource the world’s creative genius around AI, and thousands of competitors have already signed up to participate. Consulting spoke to Marcus Shingles, CEO of XPRIZE, about the perils and possibilities of the coming real-life AI invasion.
Consulting: How did the XPRIZE and Watson collaboration come to be?
Shingles: In terms of the general spirit, I’d been speaking to Executive Chairman and Founder of XPRIZE Peter Diamandis about some of the narrative around artificial intelligence getting hijacked by a very dystopian notion. Not without good reason, by the way, but the narrative was very much on the potential negative downside or risk. You heard a lot of prominent people making statements about this over the last couple of years. The goal was to take this amazing technology that was finally being democratized where it could really be used at scale for a number of applications and do something at XPRIZE with IBM where we talk about and direct the narrative into a more problem solving, making an impact for good discussion about AI and actually use XPRIZE to demonstrate it. There’s so much promise and opportunity here, let’s demonstrate this collaboration between people and AI and have it be used for good before the narrative becomes a runaway train.
Consulting: Why the timing for the competition?
Shingles: The notion of crowdsourcing people’s innovation around how they can use AI for good really has a lot of promise, particularly now. We’re kind of hitting that knee in the curve in terms of the type of technology that can be used around AI and the applications for it. You have a lot of AI capabilities being democratized to be accessed by individuals. So for the first time in history you have a situation occurring where individuals with the computing power and the cloud are entering an era in which AI is accessible. We should expect an exponential trend behind that in the next five years. The ingenuity is out there, we just don’t know where it is. The notion of the XPRIZE with IBM Watson is to use that incentive competition to get that needle in the haystack to come to us. We thought timing was conducive because the world is ramping up to use this technology and type of platform to solve big problems.
Consulting: How do you see AI being used in the workplace in the near future?
Shingles: In my consulting role, we were getting into some very serious work around cognitive analytics, especially when combined with big data. The whole industry went nuts over big data five years ago. I co-wrote a huge report and spoke to big players in the consumer products industry on big data, basically a hype-versus-reality thing. There was all this big data and nobody understood how to use it. So even though it was getting a lot of hype, the reality was you couldn’t find a lot of good examples of how the data was being used, especially in certain industries. It wasn’t until we started to interject cognitive analytics, AI, deep-learning type analytics into that model that we started to strike gold. That’s exactly what IBM Watson does.
Consulting: What industries do you see being most disrupted by the emergence of AI?
Shingles: One hundred percent, insurance. Auto insurance, health insurance, life insurance, anything that is a big data AI game. I’ve had a lot of discussions with CEOs of some of the largest insurance companies and I think they see the writing on the wall. If your business is based on making decisions and mitigating risk, if your whole business is based on how much data can I put in this model, now you can comprehend it all because you have cognitive analytics crunching the numbers, you have AI that will come in and automate that process to where you can have a self-service model. I think the notion of getting insurance, for both the buyer and the seller, is something that will be completely automated to where having a human involved may be counterproductive because it introduces a cognitive bias.
Consulting: What are the big consulting opportunities around AI?
Shingles: Every industry, public or private, will be dramatically impacted by this. Consulting firms should consider a first-mover advantage. Meaning if you’re the first one to go out to the market and brag about how you’ve helped Company A reinvent or remodel their business to make it better, faster and cheaper using cognitive analytics or AI/machine-learning/deep-learning, the first case studies that start to come out of the consulting industry that really help their clients do something pretty extraordinary, the first firms that do that, who make that hype reality, will really have that advantage. Based on my exposure to the professional services industry, they’re all ramping up for it. You can’t move forward, whether it’s strategy consulting, technology consulting, human resources consulting, performance management consulting, regardless what kind of professional services organization you run, you will use AI both with your clients as well as internally.