An article on the online tech dictionary Webopedia defines artificial intelligence (AI) as a term coined in 1956 by John McCarthy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to describe the branch of computer science concerned with making computers behave like humans.

A Forbes magazine article by RL Adams, titled “10 powerful examples of artificial intelligence in use today”, says that Siri and American automaker Tesla’s electric cars are just a few examples of AI. “Apple’s personal assistant, Siri. She’s the friendly voice-activated computer that we interact with on a daily basis. She helps us find information, gives us directions, adds events to our calendars, helps us send messages and so on. Siri is a pseudo-intelligent digital personal assistant. She uses machine-learning technology to get smarter and better able to predict and understand our natural-language questions and requests. If you don’t own a Tesla, you have no idea what you’re missing. This is quite possibly one of the best cars ever made. Not only for the fact that it’s received so many accolades, but because of its predictive capabilities, self-driving features and sheer technological ‘coolness’. Anyone that’s into technology and cars needs to own a Tesla, and these vehicles are only getting smarter and smarter thanks to their over-the-air updates,” explains Adams.

He also adds that the way in which Netflix predicts the movies we are most likely to enjoy is AI. “Netflix provides highly accurate predictive technology based on customers’ reactions to films. It analyzes billions of records to suggest films that you might like based on your previous reactions and choices of films. This tech is getting smarter and smarter by the year as the dataset grows,” he says.

Artificial intelligence is no longer a bizarre science-fiction movie. It is leading the digital revolution – from self-driving cars to digital personal assistants

In South Africa, AI is also advancing, with various companies and industries utilising it. In 2011, information communication technology (ICT) veteran entrepreneurs Mark Pedersen, Ryan Falkenberg and Dayne Falkenberg launched an AI platform, Clevva – the first version of their AI platform to help small and medium enterprises (SMEs) transform their sales logic into a virtual sales advisor to guide and help salespeople. “Since then, the platform has been significantly expanded into its current iteration: an enterprise-level platform that enables organisations to build decision navigators across multiple facets of their operations – from sales to service, to finance, to human resources (HR) and operations. Anywhere where people were making costly mistakes,” explains Clevva co-CEO, Ryan Falkenberg.

In a practical work situation, this technology would serve to empower a company’s employees. Ryan Falkenberg says: “A VA [virtual advisor] acts like an online expert, asking the required questions to understand the situation, and then recommending the right solution, be it a product or an action. Where an action is required, the VA can also guide the user through the steps, in line with company policies and procedures. It’s a bit like having a GPS [global positioning system] that ensures you make the right decisions and take the right actions, without you requiring detailed knowledge or experience.”

AI is also making waves in the medical sphere, and can widen the scope of information available to doctors. A Wired magazine article by Daniela Hernandez describes how a Long Island dermatologist was able to treat a patient with a rare skin condition that causes large, watery blisters with the help of Modernizing Medicine, a web-based repository of medical information. It meant that “within seconds, she had the name of another drug that had worked in comparable cases”. The article goes on to describe how AI is also increasing the efficacy with which doctors use medications. “Doctors at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville and St Jude’s Medical Center in Memphis are getting pop-up notifications within individual patients’ electronic medical records. The alerts tell them, for instance, when a drug might not work for a patient with certain genetic traits. It shows up in bright yellow at the top of a doctor’s computer screen – hard to miss,” says Hernandez.

In the South African medical context, a report titled “Medical AI – HIV/AIDS treatment management system” on the Centre for Artificial Intelligence Research (CAIR) website describes how AI is being used to enhance HIV and AIDS treatments. In this report, Miloslav Hajek, of the School of Computer Science at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), and Yashik Singh, of the Department of Telehealth at the Nelson R. Mandela School of Medicine, also at UKZN, say: “One such application is an HIV/AIDS antiretroviral therapy management system that uses AI algorithm to predict drug resistance and the progression of the disease. Another serious problem is the scarcity of personnel with sufficient AI knowledge in the medical field. A distance education has shown its potential to remedy the problem.”

Companies like Discovery are also utilising the power of AI. Discovery Health CEO, Dr Jonathan Broomberg, was quoted in an eHealth news article by Sikhumbuzo Hlabangane, saying: “Discovery will soon incorporate HealthTap – an artificial intelligence platform, into the Discovery HealthID, a tool that enables the sharing of patient data between doctors and funders. HealthTap uses AI to translate patient symptoms into personalised, doctor-recommended diagnoses. The virtual consultation could then be taken to a doctor for assessment, in most cases speeding up final diagnosis and shortening consultations.” Beyond personalised diagnoses, the healthcare provider is also looking to tailoring medication through genomes, which are defined as “the complete set of genes or genetic material present in a cell or organism”. Broomberg is quoted in the article as saying: “In the future, doctors will increasingly analyse DNA to tailor therapy to, for example, patients’ individual tumours.”

Last, but perhaps most notably, AI is creating the possibly of preventative medicine. “Discovery is also focusing on genome sequencing to sequence the DNA of Discovery Health Medical Scheme members. Members will send their saliva samples for analysis in order to quantify their genetic susceptibility to a wide range of diseases. Not yet approved locally, this technology will enable members to adjust their lifestyles accordingly or take early preventative measures to reduce their risk.”

Looking at the above medical advances, the AI revolution can be perceived as being for the good of humanity. But it’s also viewed as a presence that ought to be feared. Professor Arina Brits of CAIR says: “As with all technologies, we should be aware of its possible abuse in the hands of governments and corporations, who may use it at the expense of the safety and welfare of citizens. It is therefore not the technology we should be wary of, but people in positions of political or economic power. As an example, an autonomous vehicle is neither good nor bad. It has potentially good applications, such as saving the life of someone trapped in a mine, and potentially bad applications, such as killing civilians or putting taxi drivers out of work.”

Considering that South Africa is a country with incredibly high levels of unemployment, the implications are critical to consider. Ryan Falkenberg says we should not fear, because “there are many areas where AI capabilities could be used to help people become more relevant, not less relevant. For example, where intelligent logic is being applied to build staff real-time decision navigators that can, like GPS systems we use when driving, guide staff through customer sales and service conversations, as well as operational actions and decisions. The result is that staff no longer need to be trained to replicate the formula we currently ask them to replicate. They can rely on their navigator to ensure they get it right every time, with a detailed record to prove it.”

Concludes Ryan Falkenberg: “AI is coming and coming fast. Innovations such as driverless cars, 3D printing and drones are already changing how products are manufactured and delivered, we will start to see a wide range of jobs starting to disappear. These will initially be in areas such as data capture and administration, but will then start impacting on mining and farm workers before then moving on to impacting more skilled roles such as accountants, lawyers and doctors. With our current unemployment challenge, this has serious implications. This is why we need to accelerate efforts to adopt more AI that empowers people than simply look for AI that replaces people.”

Everyday examples of AI and machine learning:

  • The intelligence Facebook uses to make friend suggestions.
  • How Amazon intuitively knows what we would like to buy.
  • How Google Photos recognises faces and places.

 Future workplace: critical job specialisations in an AI future

Artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics specialists

Computer programmers and engineers will be needed in the fields of robotics, machine-learning, artificial intelligence and neural networking, to build and integrate these new technologies.

 Flexible app developers

In time, where apps integrate with different platforms throughout our lives, flexible app developers are going to be in even higher demand.

Cloud computing specialists

IT leaders report that the growth of cloud-based services is generating a myriad of cloud-related jobs, such as cloud computing programmers, capacity managers and security managers.