What to Expect From AI When You Are Not Expecting (or in 2021)

A close up of a tablet with an Amazon Echo Dot in the background.
A close up of a tablet with an Amazon Echo Dot in the background.
Photo by Waldemar Brandt on Unsplash

by Ilkay Altintas

2020 was not an easy year, taking more from society than it gave. However, it was arguably one of the best years for artificial intelligence (AI). Let’s take a look at some of the ways AI touched our lives and impacted our society while most of us lived in isolation, depending on technology to connect with the world.

As “stay-at-home” and remote work become a necessity due to COVID-19, AI assisted many parts of our virtual work lives from teleconferencing to team management and hiring. While teleconferencing platforms already made use of AI for many tasks, our unexpected use of these platforms for many hours on a daily basis inspired us to think about how this experience can be improved. Human resources and hiring practices had to adapt fast to this new virtual world with online team building and management. While there is a potential for improving HR practices using AI, it is also important to note that bias and fairness should be part of the discussion when adopting these technologies. In this more sedentary lifestyle without access to gyms and wellness classes, we also depended on AI for personal fitness.

Our love-hate relationship with smart assistants continued in 2020. However, whether it is setting up reminders, getting medical advice or something else, a whopping 38% of consumers, or 44% of Internet users, used smart assistants regularly this year according to a recent report by eMarketer.

As AI moves into the mainstream, automating some of the existing jobs and creating more jobs requiring AI and technology skills, we need to create workforce training programs to bridge the “AI skills gap” and educational resources for K-12 settings, e.g., the MIT AI education website. In 2020, with the large-scale school shutdowns, online learning has also been tested globally. So is AI being used for all this online education and training settings? Yes, although AI has not reached its full potential yet, we have seen many test examples of AI in online and offline settings, e.g., use of chatbots as a teaching assistant as well as scenarios including personalization, testing and academic integrity.

One of the biggest trends of the year was what I would call AI awareness and further work on better AI practices (e.g., responsible AI). A healthy conversation around the use of data and AI started early in the year and matured as the year evolved, making us notice that proper implementation of AI in any area is a balancing act. For example, we have seen use of AI in many forms as a part of the Black Lives Matters movement, from the unfortunate tracking of protestors to protecting the identities of the protestors in photos. This pointed out that, similar to many other uses of AI, ethical and fair practices need to be developed for facial recognition software.

2020 was also the year where use of AI in scientific practices evolved rapidly. DeepMind went from AlphaGo to AlphaFold, a big achievement in biology and computer science, with a potential to unlock how proteins function in a matter of days. This is a crown jewel among many scientific discoveries that were made possible using AI, making some call 2020 “the year the future arrived”. 2021 is likely to see a rapid growth of exciting sets of discoveries, e.g., to tackle climate change using AI and to fight cancer. AI was a major contributor to many of the discoveries around COVID-19 including atomic-scale models of the SARS-COV-2, pandemic forecasting, and personalized tracking of the disease through wearables, e.g., the Oura ring.

Going with the theme of 2020, AI was also “feeling edgy” last year. AI on the edge is increasingly applied for situations requiring low latency and high privacy, or to reduce bandwidth related costs when higher resolution data is needed. These scenarios include environmental applications, security cameras, medical monitoring devices and autonomous cars just to name a few. Combining this trend with the cloud and other traditional IT environments definitely makes an interesting case for AI Ops.

Intermixed with the fake news discussions in an election year, deep fakes become a point of concern. While the jury is out on the effect of deep fakes on election results, we still need to arm ourselves with the knowledge to spot them. Internet safety and data provenance are challenges for the new connected AI world, but we should also remember AI and big data can be used to secure our world online and offline, making it safer for us.

As we wrapped up the year, the dancing robots of Boston Dynamics reminded us that robotics is advancing rapidly. While some of us cheered to the tune and said “oh, they just want to dance!”, the rest of us could not help but wonder what is next to come. The uncanny feeling is deeply rooted in human nature, but what to ask ourselves is if the video shows a learned behavior or if it was programmed. In this case, it is the latter.

So, looking forward… what are the trends to watch in 2021? More AI maturity is definitely in order. I expect more AI awareness to take place. Fitness for use, explainability and privacy will take the center stage in this growing awareness. In the days leading to the Biden Presidency, the White House AI Initiatives Office was announced, hinting at more use of AI for collaboration and policy making across the government. Wherever the conversation evolves to, one thing is for sure: AI is here to stay a part of our lives in business, at home, in science, and across the society.

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