This is the third edition in an eight-week series, made possible by MYOB, looking at how technology is changing the way New Zealand businesses operate.
Artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML) have been in the works since the 1950s when the first electronic computers arrived, but it's not until the last decade or so that the technology has taken off and truly shown what it is capable of. From what we've seen so far, it's going to be a wild ride ahead for humanity.
Somewhat unexpectedly this is in many ways thanks to computer games. Powerful graphics cards can handle multiple complex tasks in parallel and software that allow developers to render lifelike avatars for games turned out to be ideal for AI/ML as well.
Now, AI/ML has penetrated many aspects of our lives. There are now "AI staff" that work around the clock, getting smarter and smarter from every interaction with a real person they have, and the business transactions they conduct.
In a not so distant future, we could have AI/ML provide medical diagnosis by analysing personal sensor data, computer vision and audio; children in poor countries might be able to receive the level of education that only wealthy nations could afford in the past.
Banks, airlines, and telcos: it's getting harder to find a human to talk to, rather than an AI-powered chatbot.
Governments too are increasingly moving towards having humans and machines collaborating on decision-making, with only a few agencies not using AI algorithms anymore.
Last year, Stats NZ and the Department of Internal Affairs conducted an algorithm stocktake that was hailed as a good start, but which also highlighted some of the challenges of machine-based decision support.
For example, while the audit was pointed to cost benefits from AI use, the question of whether or not machine-supported decisions were fair and accurate was not asked, University of Otago researchers working on the Artificial Intelligence and Law in New Zealand Project found.
AI technology has quickly moved into the personal space as well, through smartphones and smart speakers.
Apple's Siri, the Hey Google and Amazon Alexa digital assistant are how many people first come into to contact with AI. The digital assistants are always listening out for your commands - and learning in great detail who you are as a person for marketing purposes.
Other every day areas where AI/ML is making inroads include image recognition, like in video doorbells that detect who is calling at your premises and chatbots handling customer service enquiries.
The transformation towards intelligent machines that directly interact with humans is underway, and some tasks and jobs done by people will be taken over by AI. Even so, analysts such as IDC forecast that AI use will create more new jobs than it destroys.
A 2017 study on customer relationship management by IDC pointed to over 800,000 new jobs being directly created by 2021 through AI use worldwide. Two million in indirect and induced jobs are also forecast, courtesy of the trillion-dollar revenue boost the technology is expected to deliver.
AI/ML will work with other technologies such as virtual and augmented reality, cloud computing, fast mobile networks and large-scale sensor deployments. It will change how we do business by giving smaller organisations the ability to develop and retain the kind of institutional knowledge and expertise that were the reserve of larger organisations in the past.
Computers work any hours gleaning valuable data from customer interactions and business transactions and do not forget them like humans do. AI/ML algorithms that learn from them will provide small business a competitive advantage.
Digital Humans company FaceMe's chief operating office Bradley Scott likens AI/ML to the fourth industrial revolution, "so it's not something you can afford to miss out on,".
"I think it's important for New Zealand businesses to realise that AI isn't a next-year or next decade thing. It's here, now, and we need to focus our talent on [AI/ML] to make sure we catch the wave," Scott says.
We might not have thought it through properly, before unleashing the AI genie, but it's with us now and there's no escaping it.
"Fundamentally you have to think about it as the technology that will reshape and restructure the business and the industry you operate in," says Soul Machines' co-founder and chief business officer Greg Cross.
The key message from Cross is that AI/ML development and growth overseas is growing exponentially. If New Zealand organisations don't start with AI/ML now, they risk not just losing out on the benefits of the technology that are available now, but they might also not be able to catch up with competitors later on.
"Without a doubt we're heading into this era where we as people are going to spend more and more of our time interacting with artificial intelligence, chatbots and voice assistance," Cross says.
"Wouldn't it be better if these machines were more like us?" asks Cross.
That is the road these companies want us to travel, towards creating a human-like experience that connects us with smart machines that never cease to learn. Where exactly reaching that goal will take us is, however, anyone's guess.
Q&A panel with AI experts
AI/ML is still in its infancy, and we're only starting to understand its possibilities and how powerful it can be as Scott and Cross emphasise.
The next few years will see AI break loose from two-dimensional screens and be deployed using augmented and virtual reality, and in robots and self-driving cars. That's a huge transformation for New Zealand business, which need to understand the impact AI will have not just on them, but on society as a whole.
Midday Wednesday, the Herald will run a live panel in which experts will discuss how this technology is changing small business in New Zealand. Tune in to participate in the live chat.