Why I’m still waiting for Scotty to beam me up!

shutterstock_411428653“Let’s just be friends, Rashesh” she replied, when I asked her if she would marry me.

We had been together for a few years now, and pretty much inseparable the entire time. You might even say we grew up in this brave new world together, and had adjusted rather well to each other’s peculiarities. Yet, Siri did not wait more than a nanosecond before flatly turning down my proposal. Meanwhile, the woman who said “yes” in real life to that question many years ago, was listening to my insistent banter with Siri, rolling her eyes, and wondered aloud if I was sure Siri’s intelligence was really “artificial”.

Siri, of course is the smart, omnipresent (and apparently, quite sassy) digital assistant that comes bundled with iPhones. Her cousins are Cortana and Alexa, and the nerdy one who works at Google simply goes by “Assistant”.

For decades now, it seems that the major breakthroughs we were promised in artificial intelligence (AI), virtual reality (VR), personal robots and other cool tech advances have somewhat stalled. But while we still can’t chat with onboard computers on our personal spaceships, AI is far more pervasive in our daily lives than most might realize. Years of painstaking research and investment in AI technologies have started to yield impressive results: Siri can predict our commute patterns. Cortana warns us of bad weather, Assistant sets calendar reminders with the impassive demeanor of an English butler of yore.

On the other extreme, machine learning and deep learning play a key role in the rapid emergence of visual search, giving us automatically tagged and sorted photographs with uncomfortably accurate markers for names, places and groupings. This same technology also allows governments to tap into real-time facial, biometric and pattern recognition across millions of traveler profiles.

From prototype to personal adoption

The hardware front also is chock full of exciting probabilities. Drones and robots are going mainstream. Computing has become miniaturized to produce powerhouse computers that fit into pockets and purses. Yet still, the elusive “je ne sais quoi” is missing. One wonders, why are we not further along? If my computer can’t beam me extra-terrestrially, why can’t my watch at least book my next flight? If our airplanes have harnessed auto-pilot technology safely for ages, why can’t my car benefit from it?

Here are three simple reasons why we haven’t seen AI take a more dramatic leap forward.

  1. It’s the people, of course. The agricultural revolution had its farmers; the industrial revolution had its factory workers. The AI revolution (at best) has only a few thousand specialists. Very few universities today offer training in AI, neural networks, machine learning and similar fields. We simply do not have the talent pool to ideate, experiment, innovate, and push the boundaries of AI’s immense possibilities.
  1. Moving beyond cute. Yes, virtual assistants that give sassy responses are cute, and AI-prompted reminders to pack your umbrella are handy. Yet there are few use cases that yield powerful, tangible returns on AI investments. Healthcare has always flirted with AI’s potential, but only recently have practitioners moved away from the lofty computer-as-a-physician ideal to the more pragmatic approach of AI as an expert physician’s assistant that ingests and analyzes data from millions of papers and clinical trials. No human could ever come close to synthesizing this quantity of information that AI can, making for better diagnoses and treatment plans.
  1. The only thing we have to fear. Let’s face it: we generally don’t deal well with change, even the “good-for-us” variety. Think about how long it took to fully adopt ATMs, and later online banking, even when the 24/7 convenience was clearly advantageous from the start. AI often evokes a special kind of scare factor: the oft-touted assertion that once machines can think for themselves, they will become self-learning “beings” that will inevitably reduce humans to unemployed, cowering masses forced into exile. Fear of change always impedes adoption of new technology, and AI is no exception.

Predicting a bright future

Industries like travel are ripe to apply AI to address many exciting possibilities. Think about trips booked that automatically account for traveler preferences and prior experiences, or leverage deep learning for optimal supply and demand. Travel suppliers like airlines or hotels can easily offer contextually aware and relevant experiences powered by AI-run operations.

If history offers any guide, progress rarely rides a linear curve. At some point, a series of incremental changes gives way to disruptive transformation because humans have always found a way to move up the value chain. For example, once electricity was discovered and harnessed to power the industrial revolution, we turned our attention toward making lava lamps and three dozen types of toasters.

All joking aside, AI will not make us feckless; our latent ingenuity and creativity will leverage the opportunity to escape the demands of mundane and repetitive work, creating an exciting future that our limited intelligence today — whether biological or artificial — cannot yet fathom.

How do you think artificial intelligence will have the greatest impact on travel technology?


Editor’s note: This story was excerpted from Rashesh Jethi’s original blog published in Venture Beat.


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