The Artificial Intelligence Reboot

A few years ago it was all about the apps. Now Silicon Valley and its clique of billionaire geeks have a new obsession: artificial intelligence.

The idea of developing AI has been around for a while, and has made a major comeback after an “AI winter” (1980s to 1990s), when almost nothing happened in the study of AI technology.

Progress in the field is accelerating, and today it’s quickly becoming known as the AI boom. Some of the most important firms in the Silicon Valley micro-universe are investing a lot of money in AI projects and companies have spent around US$8.5 billion in deals and investments – four times more than in 2010.

The companies investing most heavily in the field are, not surprisingly, also among the best-known in the tech industry, including Baidu, Facebook, Google and IBM.

The AI Brain Drain
The biggest, or at least most-discussed (potential) danger of AI is that it will overtake humans’ ability to control it. Since the early days, sci-fi authors have warned of the dangers, and while a Terminator-style doomsday may not be the outcome, leading minds like Stephen Hawkings have warned of the very real dangers of unleashing AI.

Beyond an AI apocalypse, some people are deeply concerned by the academic implications of the phenomenon. The companies that are investing the most to develop the AI world are also the ones that are hiring the top tech talents worldwide, most of which come from the best universities (like Stanford, MIT or Oxford), where they already research and teach AI.

More interestingly, big firms are hiring not only current, high-profile personalities in the tech world, but even students – undergraduates who are involved in a variety of AI projects.

Many people worry this mania for hiring current students and tenured lecturers from within universities could lead to a brain-drain, leaving leading institutions emptied of the best and brightest minds to lead new generations of AI innovators.

Also, another concern comes from the possibility of one company hoarding the majority of talent and creating a sort of intellectual monopoly. Google seems to be the firm with the most ability to do this; thanks to its Google Brain project and its acquisition of DeepMind, it has some of the brightest human brains working on creating AI ones.

In 2014, DeepMind trained a computer to repeatedly beat the world champion at the board game Go (a game which unlike chess, has millions and millions of possible outcomes and is seen as a true test of AI intelligence).

AI applications
While most existing ideas already developed are mainly consumer applications like image recognition and spam filtering, exciting new projects are going much further, like self-driving cars and virtual personal assistants that can handle complex tasks. It’s no surprise that big tech companies want to harness AI’s potential.

However, the AI world is not the only one driven by the biggest technology brands. In December,  Elon Musk and several other tech leaders donated US$1 billion to help fund OpenAI. The research lab aims to make public all its progresses in AI technology, an altruistic ambition stemming from the necessity to ensure there are independent entities that are working on developing AI not only for profit, but also for the public good.

If you’re still on the fence on which field to pursue in STEM, getting into AI is a safe bet if you want to get hired fast. There is a reason Google managed to not only snag AI talents, but also hold onto them – with its deep pockets, you can understand why.