AI Startup CEO: Tech Giants Will Likely Lead Data Acquisition And Artificial Intelligence Control

As artificial intelligence becomes ubiquitous in our lives and businesses in the coming years, unfettered access to troves of data will be the greatest asset for companies competing for market share, said Asokan Ashok, CEO of UnfoldLabs, a mobile, cloud and big data vendor.

The primacy of data will make AI a prohibitive market dominated by a handful of name-brand vendors that can tap massive data stores. Innovative startups that emerge in the field will most likely have no choice but be acquired by those giants, Ashok told attendees of The NexGen 2017 Conference & Technology Expo in Los Angeles.

Amazon, Google, Facebook, and IBM appear to be leading the field, but the technology is still in its infancy, he said.

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The recent explosion of investment and interest in AI results from "a perfect storm of technologies" coming to fruition, such as machine learning and deep learning, big data, natural language processing, speech-to-text and text-to-speech, and emerging capabilities around machine vision and image recognition.

But while AI may be the most-hyped technology around, it's far from new. AI was first mentioned in 1956 and has promised breakthroughs ever since. Only in recent years has that evolution accelerated thanks to leaps in computing technology, especially cloud.

Virtual assistants started showing up on smartphones in 2011. AI then entered our homes in 2016 with products like Amazon Alexa, the software powering the Echo home assistant, and Google Home. This year machine learning algorithms accessed through those devices started mining home data to know "what's happening in your life."

Now the technology is moving toward "machine consciousness"—the point at which those devices "automatically understands things," Ashok said. Those capabilities reduce human errors, automate repetitive jobs, provide us with digital assistants and improve the efficacy of medical applications.

The four leading companies in AI, according to Ashok, all have unique strengths.

Amazon has recently stepped up its efforts, building off Alexa to introduce SageMaker to AWS, a managed machine learning service, and deep learning services in its cloud-like Polly, Rekognition, and Lex.

Google this year said it was going AI-first. The Internet giant enjoys an advantage thanks to its Android mobile operating system's market share dominance, feeding Google unrivaled volumes of visual data from smartphones it can mine on the back end to fuel "tons of image recognition."

Facebook has also long been investing in improving its social platform with machine learning, fed by photos and other unstructured data sources submitted by its unrivaled user base. "Facebook is starting to put in a lot of effort in making artificial intelligence interesting for everybody," Ashok said.

And IBM has slowly and steadily built up Watson as a cognitive platform. Big Blue is collecting large amounts of data that Watson can use to solve challenging business and healthcare problems.

Microsoft, according to Ashok, is slightly lagging behind those leaders.

Control of data sources will almost ensure those companies dominate the market in perpetuity. Startups that deliver advances in algorithms will likely be gobbled up by large vendors, like Google's purchase of DeepMind.

Several trends should emerge next year as the AI leaders seek even more data to train models and refine algorithms, Ashok said. Crowdsourcing will likely become an important source of data acquisition. "Companies will go after huge data sets to execute AI," Ashok said. Intense competition will also break out for intellectual capital and talent, he said.

Vendors looking to gain market share will increasingly open source their algorithms, further knocking down barriers to accessing the technology. And as the technology evolves, with speech analytics and facial recognition becoming far more sophisticated, human-machine interactions will improve.

AI will start to impact all verticals, according to Ashok. But new security, privacy, ethics and moral issues will arise—questions of whether AI will harm or benefit humans, or simply replace them in the workplace.

But it could be some time before we all have to grapple with those issues. "I don’t see it peaking in my lifetime," Ashok told NexGen attendees. "There's lots more work that needs to be done."