“What are your thoughts on God?” asked a conference attendee at a breakout session during lunch. The room became silent and all eyes bounced between the asker and the presenter. Without a pause, the presenter provided a thought-provoking response, I’ll explain that in a moment.

Such a question would be irrelevant or inappropriate at most technology conferences, but not at Time Machine 2017, SparkCognition’s first annual Artificial Intelligence conference. Policy and ethics took center stage as various speakers presented applications for AI and advanced Machine Learning throughout multiple industries.

Amir Husain, Founder & CEO of SparkCognition, and author of The Sentient Machine: The Coming Age of Artificial Intelligence, opened the conference with a presentation titled, “AI is Eating the World”, a riff on Marc Andreesen’s famous Why Software is Eating the World. Husain presented the idea that AI is “eating” software while software eats the world. The traditional “if-then-else” approach to algorithmic programming is being eclipsed by AI and Machine Learning. This revolution is leading to what SparkCognition calls, the “AI Century”.

“AI will not only drive technology forward over the next 100 years, but will shape the destiny of nations, and the destiny of humanity.” – Amir Husain

According to Mr. Husain, the chances of reaching human-level intelligence within the next few decades is “pretty high.” The least optimistic country about achieving this goal is the United States, while Eastern countries are most optimistic. China’s public goal is to build their AI industry to $150 billion in the next few years. While the U.S. has openly committed less public-sector funding, investments from the private sector such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Amazon are significant. Mr. Husain’s opening keynote is available here.

The inaugural Time Machine conference explored the applications of AI in Energy, Healthcare, Music, Aviation, Finance, Robotics, Defense, and IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things). Many of the excellent presentations covered strategic and theoretical applications. The robotics presentation by Dr. Peter Stone (University of Texas at Austin) was particularly fascinating. Autonomous robots playing soccer was both entertaining to watch and provided a sneak peek of how AI could shape the future of sports and entertainment.

The “AI in Military” talk by General John Allen (USMC, ret.) presented an eye-opening perspective on how AI affects the nature of war. Advances in IoT and wearables supply strategic, operational, and tactical leaders with data that reduces uncertainty and leads to better decisions. As AI progresses, and “machine speed” quickly eclipses human decision-making speed, the ethics and tactics that traditionally developed slowly will need to adapt rapidly. Military training, planning, and operations need to adapt to faster “observe, orient, decide, act (OODA)” processes that AI requires.

“War is a time competitive process, and AI gives us an incredible advantage.” – General John Allen (USMC, ret.)

Today’s AI landscape is similar to the Internet in the 1990’s. Companies are looking at every problem set through the lens of AI and asking how it will transform or disrupt their businesses. Like the Web 1.0 days, AI is becoming a buzzword in the board room, as forward-thinking leaders approach old challenges in new ways. There is a danger here, however in failing to see the forest for the trees. AI-first products and services will have a significant advantage over their traditional counterparts and the incumbent solutions will need to adapt quickly.

The primary takeaway from the event is that Artificial Intelligence will be revolutionary, rather than evolutionary. However, the current state-of-the-art is narrowly focused. As Professor Bruce Porter, Chief Science Officer at SparkCognition and ChaairProfessor at UT Austin said, current models are “idiot savants” capable of accomplishing certain problem sets with extraordinary ease, but their contextual awareness is still poor. For example, most AI’s couldn’t accurately surmise a person’s birthplace if given the location of the parents at the time of birth. Humans intuitively understand that mothers and babies are collocated at birth, but this context is not engrained in machines the same way.

Research, a focus for many of the conference presenters, is still the primary domain for developments in AI. The tools are highly specialized now, but are becoming more accessible to industry. The productization of AI is constantly evolving and companies like NexTech Solutions need to keep a close watch on this emerging technology.

Despite broad representation from various industry verticals (Finance, Energy, Aviation, etc.), many of the use cases are similar. Cost-reduction programs such as predicting component failures, “reliable availability” modeling, and optimizing logistics are applicable across disciplines. Cybersecurity is another area ripe for transformation in the very near-term.

Going back to the question of God, Mr. Husain handled the question with grace. He likened the universe to a complex model based on a set of rules, much like John Conway’s Game of Life or the Mandelbrot Set. Amir closed his response by suggesting that if God exists, then it is most certainly as a mathematician and computer scientist.

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