After a big 2016, next year may be A.I. tipping point

Artificial intelligence progress expected to continue to accelerate in coming year

For artificial intelligence, 2016 has been a big year.

After years of researchers saying artificial intelligence (A.I.) was on the cusp of a revolution, the technology has made major advances this past year.

And now, finally, the beginnings of that major A.I. revolution seem to be here.

"It's been a huge year in A.I.," said Patrick Moorhead, an analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy. "We've seen industry giants -- like Microsoft, Google, Amazon, IBM, Intel, and Nvidia -- either make A.I. their company 'north star' or add and advance the craft with new offerings to democratize A.I."

In this past year, the land grab for anything A.I. was one of the most noticeable aspects of this industry.

For instance, in this past year alone, at least 20 artificial intelligence companies have been acquired, according to CB Insights, a tech market analysis company.

In 2016, Apple acquired Emotient, Tuplejump, and Turi, while Salesforce bought PredictionIQ and MetaMind; Google picked up Api.ai and Moodstocks; and Intel acquired Itseez, Nervana Systems and Movidius.

Twitter, eBay, Oracle, Amazon, Microsoft, and GE also acquired A.I. companies.

Some of the companies getting scooped up were startups, meaning the big companies were often as interested in the A.I. researchers as much as the technology they were working on.

That's because big players in, and out, of the tech industry see the writing on the wall. A.I. is going to be a big player, whether it's being used to help customers pick out the perfect jacket online, or give them directions around an accident on their commute home, find fraudulent action on client accounts, or interact with clients and customers using voice commands, text, and chat apps.

Executives at online retailer 1-800-Flowers, for instance, say artificial intelligence technology is so important that it will completely change their business.

"We are on the cusp of a change as big as when e-commerce hit," said Chris McCann, president and CEO of 1-800-Flowers.com, in an interview this fall. "It's giving us the opportunity to have such deep relationships with our customers that it'll be like the company hasn't existed before."

This past May, Google showed how focused it is on A.I. during its annual Google I/O developers conference, unveiling A.I.-powered products like Google Assistant, its Google Home device, the Allo chat app and the Duo video chat app.

And this past October, IBM president and CEO Ginni Rometty said during a keynote at the company's World of Watson conference that in the next five years, every major decision -- personal or business -- will be made with the help of IBM's Watson A.I. system.

A statement like that takes a lot of confidence in advances coming in the technology.

"We are about where I expected we'd be in the industry but, be aware, this is a moving bar and one big breakthrough could change this dynamic dramatically. And there are a lot of people in the hunt for that breakthrough," said Rob Enderle, an analyst with the Enderle Group. "Next year, we'll see a lot more smart systems, an increasingly capable group of smart assistants and far more self-driving, and even self-flying, vehicles being tested."

In other words, in the coming year artificial intelligence advances may begin to cascade, instead of simply inch forward.

And A.I. itself could begin to fuel that progress.

"Right now, A.I. is largely being created by humans," said Enderle. "The big wave will likely come when A.I. systems are more aggressively used to create future A.I. systems. When that happens, the speed of advancement will likely follow less of a linear scale and more of an algorithmic one."

For Moorhead, he thinks 2017 will see an increasing number of companies using artificial intelligence-based platforms in their apps and services.

"I also think we will start to see enterprises jumping onto the A.I. bandwagon," he added. "I expect the Tesla full autonomous car capabilities will be close to be turned on... I don't believe we're yet at the tipping point [with A.I.] but we are close. The tipping point will likely happen next year as A.I. makes its way into more apps."

Dave Schubmehl, an analyst with IDC, said he too expects to see more enterprises adopting A.I. technologies in the coming year.

"I think we'll see a significant increase in the distribution and use of A.I. that is embedded within enterprise applications, providing guidance, recommendations, and predictions," he said. "I think we're on track as far as what we're seeing in the marketplace."

Schubmehl, however, said while there have been strong advances in conversational A.I. systems, he's disappointed there haven't been more advances in consumer-focused digital assistants.

Moorhead, agreed, adding, "Intelligent agents, like Alexa and Siri, are behind where I thought they'd be."

They're hoping, though, that 2017 will see that turn around.

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