Mint Lounge profiles 10 tech start-ups that have tapped Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence to transform sectors such as healthcare, education, auto, banking and retail
The rise of a technology has Bill Gates issuing warnings of an apocalypse. Elon Musk, too. Even Stephen Hawking.
What’s worrying these technologists? It’s Artificial Intelligence or AI, an idea whose time has come—it is incubating in science labs and being deployed by start-ups and industrial units alike.
Why are Gates and Co. worried? Specifically, it’s over machine learning, an early form of AI that has in recent years become mainstream, causing both delight and nervousness among AI experts and technology companies.
AI involves building computers capable of taking smart decisions by themselves, the way humans do. Machine learning and various other sub-fields such as deep learning are the means to achieve AI.
Google announced this week that it is rethinking all its products to base them on AI; it has created a new unit called Google.ai to facilitate this shift.
The revival of interest in machine learning has been driven by a confluence of factors, such as the massive increase in computing power, emergence of neural networks (connected transistors that replicate the structure of neurons in the human brain) and the easy availability of vast amounts of data, thanks to the Internet.
Compared to AI leaders in the Silicon Valley and China, India is a laggard but even here, nearly 300 start-ups are using some form of AI, according to Tracxn, a start-up tracker. Among dedicated AI-only Indian start-ups, 23% are working on providing solutions to multiple industries, 15% are in e-commerce, 12% in healthcare, 11% in education, 10% in financial services, and the rest in fields such as retail and logistics, according to a 2017 report by Kalaari Capital, a venture capital firm.
Internet companies tap machine learning techniques for a range of uses—to recommend products for you, for instance, or to predict where cabs should be placed so that when you open your cab-hailing app, there’s one a couple of minutes’ drive away.
Healthcare start-ups use AI to help hospitals make speedy and accurate blood reports and medical diagnoses, saving lives. Others get fashion brands and retailers to buy the right quantities of stock.
Suddenly, AI is everywhere.
Lounge looks at 10 exciting start-ups that are using AI and machine learning techniques to transform healthcare, education, auto and retail. Their success is far from assured. They struggle to find quality talent; they face stiff competition from other AI start-ups; their solutions haven’t yet stood the test of time (most are less than five years old); and they are vulnerable to a variety of other factors that typically bring down start-ups, AI or not.
Given the number of AI start-ups, the list is far from comprehensive. Yet the work that these 10 start-ups (and others like them) do is exciting and sometimes cutting-edge, holding out the promise of a significantly improved product or service.
How does this work? Traditional code writing entailed programming computers, essentially telling computers what to do. With machine learning, computers are taught to do things themselves. Pedro Domingos, a professor in computer science and engineering at the University of Washington, puts it fittingly in his book, The Master Algorithm: How The Quest For The Ultimate Learning Machine Will Remake Our World: “The Industrial Revolution automated manual work and the Information Revolution did the same for mental work, but machine learning automates automation itself."
This is what has people worried—and thrilled. The likes of Gates and Musk fear that machines that learn to think for themselves may become smarter than humans and start taking control of things—the stuff of science fiction. But others such as Domingos believe it will lead to a near-utopian state where people, freed of chores and menial work (now automated), will pursue things that truly excite them.
No matter which side of the fence you are on, there’s little doubt that AI represents potentially the most disruptive leap in technology in decades.
Apart from disrupting incumbents across businesses, AI may worsen a major socio-economic headache for India: employment. The threat from automation to engineering jobs in Indian IT companies is well documented. But IT is by no means the only business where jobs are at risk. Automation may be a threat to 69% of the jobs in India, according to an October 2016 World Bank report. Even Domingos, who expresses a never-failing belief in the potential of AI to do good for humankind, acknowledges that the technology is likely to make many jobs redundant.