The NT$16 Trillion Holy Grail
The artificial intelligence field is exploding, with companies, societies and countries all desperate to get in on the game. More than 1,000 startups have bet on the field and its NT$16 trillion market potential.
The NT$16 Trillion Holy GrailBy Elaine Huang
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 596 )
More than 2,000 years ago, Socrates wrote: "To know thyself is the beginning of wisdom." The emergence of Google's artificial intelligence program AlphaGo has suddenly accelerated the human journey on the road to understanding ourselves.
Steve Chang, the chairman of Trend Micro Taiwan who has been out of the public eye for a while, says artificial intelligence (AI) is on the verge of exploding and could create a global upheaval even more far-reaching than the industrial revolution. "It's the new Holy Grail after Moore's Law," Chang says.
Forty years ago, Intel's microprocessors started Moore's Law – the idea that the computing speed of chips would double every 18 months – triggering the personal computer revolution.
"From the industry's perspective, how companies decided on whether or not to keep up with Moore's Law determined whether they succeeded or failed. Twenty years later, I think it's artificial intelligence (that will set the bar)," Chang says.
The artificial intelligence wave has arrived, and new Intels, IBMs and Qualcomms will surely emerge.
AlphaGo Just the Beginning
Trend Micro was extremely taken by AlphaGo, which defeated South Korean Go champion Lee Sedol in a series of five Go games, 4-1.
That's in part because Trend Micro has snared Taiwan's biggest collection of artificial intelligence talent. But even more important is that company began doing two years ago what Google has done. It worked with Wang Ming-wan (O Meien in Japan), a veteran Taiwanese Go star who resides in Japan and two-time winner of the prestigious Honinbo Go tournament, to train Trend Micro's computer Go program GoTrend. After six months of development, GoTrend took sixth place at the Computer Go UEC Cup in 2015.
So when AlphaGo faced off against Lee Sedol, Trend Micro organized a party that brought together Trend Micro's AI team, 150 AI experts from around Taiwan and prominent Go masters, with Wang Ming-wan on hand to give live commentary as the games progressed.
Just two months earlier, Trend Micro emerged as the world's biggest antivirus software company, and artificial intelligence was the key to that success. The company spends every minute of every day using artificial intelligence to do battle with hackers and computer viruses.
"We have the biggest group of artificial intelligence talent in Taiwan. They are all young Taiwanese," Chang says with pride.
Google Taiwan Managing Director Lee-feng Chien agrees with Chang on artificial intelligence's potential impact.
"Artificial intelligence will soon evolve into an industry-wide movement that will accelerate in the future, attracting large amounts of capital, investment and talent. It will become something that every country has no choice but to pursue," Chien says.
From the chips and IC design upstream in the manufacturing supply chain, which influence computing speed and efficiency, to the hardware and software moving closer to artificial intelligence, the movement has in fact swept through the entire sector.
Jen-hsun Huang, co-founder and CEO of leading graphics technology company Nvidia, boldly declared at the GPU Technology Conference in Silicon Valley in early April that an artificial intelligence system powered by "deep learning" algorithms and high performance computing will become a brand new computing model.
Citing estimates by startup platform Venture Scanner, this high-tech guru said more than US$5 billion was invested in AI startups in 2015 and that there are now more than 1,000AI startups. He predicted that AI represents a US$500 billion (about NT$16 trillion) opportunity over the next 10 years.
Apple, which has always served as the bellwether of the high-tech sector, has not taken a back seat to Google in moving into AI.
In the fourth quarter of 2015 and the first quarter this year, Apple attracted attention by acquiring four companies involved in artificial intelligence – image-recognition systems startup Perceptio, AI speech technology startup VocalIQ, motion capture software specialist Faceshift, and Emotient, which develops solutions that read emotions through the analysis of facial expressions.
All of these companies, including Apple and Google, are aggressively using artificial intelligence technology to develop "virtual assistant" services that enable people to use virtual assistants like Apple Siri and Google Now through their mobile devices more easily and precisely.
Beyond the tech sector, everybody from computer giants and education experts to game companies, music studios and the Pentagon are all going all in on artificial intelligence. European and American venture capitalists and trend experts are converging on AI, and no company, whether a multinational conglomerate or fledgling startup, is willing to be left behind.
AI Financial Advisors, Chefs
Artificial intelligence applications are infiltrating businesses in every sector, and could spark a gold rush over the next 20 years, leading to upheavals not only in industry but also in your living room.
"It used to be that everybody thought Intel’s microprocessor could only do one thing. They didn't think it could become a camera. When a technology can be used across any product, that’s when it gets scary," Trend Micro's Chang says.
"Right now, AI is quickly developing into one platform after another, and by platform I mean something that can be applied to anything."
The technology has quickly migrated to the financial services sector. In March, American investment bank Goldman Sachs announced that it was acquiring financial technology company Honest Dollar, which had been in business for barely over a year.
Honest Dollar has created a "robo-advisor" in the form of an automated platform that devises investment strategies and allocates assets for small businesses looking to set up retirement plans for their employees quickly and inexpensively.
Through the platform, Goldman Sachs will be able to extend its customer base to beyond the high-wealth clients and big corporations it normally serves and reach employees of small and medium-sized businesses, taxi drivers, and plumbers and electricians, offering them professional retirement planning services and portfolio advice in 90 seconds.
AI is also spawning a revolution in the retail sector, especially in e-commerce.
At a seminar on "intelligence" in March, Innovation Works co-founder Wang Hua said the key to artificial intelligence was "deep learning," the development of the perception field such as computer vision, phonetic hearing and natural language processing.
Alibaba e-commerce arm Taobao is currently testing a facial recognition software that can reconstruct a person's face and body measurements and quickly identify the user's age and facial expression.
When you are ready to buy an item on Taobao, for example, you simply look into your smartphone and have the system verify that you are indeed the person making the purchase. If Taobao discovers you are not who you say you are, the system will not complete the transaction.
Taobao processes a huge volume of data, more than 10 million faces a day, that are sent into a cloud database. In the future, this software and equipment can be apply to markets, offices and the place most in need of accurate identity verification, airport immigration.
Innovation Works' Wang says the emergence of "perception" would mean not only an AI-driven module's understanding of its surroundings but also the ability to make decisions and complete tasks independently, a capability that could be applied to the manufacturing or service sector or to smart transportation or smart appliances.
The most obvious example is the automobile.
Vehicles have become a fixture of high-tech exhibitions, and the Internet of Things and AI have forged the basic freeways of the Internet of Vehicles, paving the way for cars to evolve into smart, mobile computers in the future. They are already the target of alliances among high-tech stalwarts.
AI + Four Wheels = Car of the Future
At the Mobile World Congress in February, Qualcomm Inc. President Derek Aberle teamed up with Formula 1 champion Lewis Hamilton to discuss the importance of mobile technology to the future of the automotive industry and the use of chips driven by artificial intelligence in the next-generation car. Observers immediately saw Aberle's comments as an indication that the car market will be Qualcomm's next big target as its smartphone business's growth tapers off.
Similarly, Google's seeking out of BMW to cooperate on driverless cars and acquiring DeepMind to develop AlphaGo has been interpreted as Google's desire to demonstrate the "deep learning" capabilities of machines and eventually make the driverless car a reality.
Artificial intelligence has changed the relationship between humans and machines and will soon make the traditional tools used in communicating with computers and machines – mouses and keyboards – obsolete.
Reed Hastings, founder and CEO of video-streaming service Netflix Inc., has an academic background in artificial intelligence, and he used this analogy to describe the future of man vs. machine relationship.
"The future of intelligence is a race brewing between carbon-based lifeforms (humans) and silicon-based lifeforms (machines)," Hastings said in January. "Both are rapidly evolving. It's unclear which type of intelligence will emerge dominant in 100, 150 years."
In Tokyo, a ramen restaurant already exists where there's not a waiter or chef in sight. Customers order dishes on a computer, and robots cook them up in the kitchen. Similarly, there's a revolving sushi restaurant where all the sushi is pressed by robots.
The artificial intelligence era is fast approaching, and "man-machine integration" could be a common occurrence within 20 years. Perhaps in the future, people will have access to a voice-controlled virtual assistant like Tony Stark's J.A.R.V.I.S system in the movie Iron Man to help book a room, buy tickets or even chat when they feel bored.
In the future, whether making a phone call, paying the credit card bill, driving, making an appointment or composing a great symphony or work of art, artificial intelligence will likely play a role. The full thrust of AI will soon be upon us.
Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier