How Automation and Artificial Intelligence Work Together to Spur Innovation

by Aidan Cunniffe

According to experts, 2016 may finally be the year that artificial intelligence comes into its own — not in the science fiction “robots will take over humanity” sense, but in a much more practical and useful way.

AI is already excellent at problem-solving — when it comes to finding patterns, it can usually solve a problem much faster than its human counterpart. For the most part, though, AI still very limited in scope, and the dreams of a general intelligence are still far off.

To some, AI being able to execute nearly any task that humans can perform today may sound like a worst-case scenario. But, in actuality, this future will bring about a new era of creativity and innovation. While AI may be able to execute the majority of logic-based tasks, it’s still incapable of creative thinking — and that shows no signs of changing in the near future.

At my company, embracing automation has meant freeing up time once spent on the more repetitive aspects of programming, which allows us to be more creative and experimental. As AI continues to be integrated into automation, this freedom will only increase. The same holds true for virtually every industry you can think of.

AI stands to aid us in the following areas:

1. Handling the menial and not-so-menial: Automation has already taken over many aspects of production and manual labor, but with the help of AI, it can go much further. Complex tasks that require a significant amount of brain power but little to no creative thinking will soon be outsourced to machines and algorithms — and, in some cases, they already have been.

These come in the form of focused AI bots such as Amy, which can not only schedule appointments and meetings for clients, but also negotiate and renegotiate these schedules without the aid of a human.

Moreover, companies such as DigitalGenius have created friendly, human-like customer support bots that can solve most basic customer service problems autonomously. AI is even taking over many aspects of automated marketing, thanks to its predictive intelligence capabilities.

The ultimate goal of this kind of automation isn’t to take over people’s jobs; it’s to allow people to focus more energy on creative work rather than execution. Come up with the customer support script for an AI; don’t spend your time repeatedly answering questions.

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2. Automated testing and problem-solving: A primary function of innovation is iterating a product until you get it right. A common process is to make 10 variants, find the best 2 or 3, make 10 more of each, and repeat the process. This kind of work is labor-intensive and can take weeks, months, or even years.

But this process also resembles the way computers solve problems today. For instance, one of the reasons computers are so good at chess is that they calculate every single move before ever actually moving a chess piece.

In theory, if AI were paired with evolutionary algorithms, it could iterate thousands of different designs and figure out which ones are best — all in its mind’s eye. It would be like Microsoft’s Minecraft playing AI but for a physical product. Innovation is a slow process, but if AI combined with automation could do all the necessary grunt work, it would shorten the development timeline exponentially, allowing innovation to happen at a previously unheard-of pace.

According to Eric Schmidt, chairman of Alphabet Inc. (formerly Google), this same thinking could also be used to solve global problems such as climate change and population growth. Computers can sort through an extensive amount of data to calculate cause and effect a million times over in a fraction of the time it would take humans to perform the same task.

3. Advanced personalization: Every product and service has a specific yet broad target. Salesforce, for instance, sells the same product to any company with a sales team. Apple gives everyone the same iPhone.

While these products can work for hundreds of thousands of people, they’re always shy of being the perfect solution for every individual. Even Apple, famous for its intuitive designs, operates largely under the “90/10 rule” — designing for 90 percent of the population while leaving at least 10 percent out in the cold.

That’s not to say that today’s products are bad; it’s just that the level of personalization that would be required to make a product completely perfect for everyone doesn’t exist yet. With the combined forces of general AI and automated machines, the ability to tailor products to individual needs will finally be possible.

If products become exactly what you want them to be, why would you ever leave?

This could also change the nature of competition. What do you compete over when every product can be exactly what each customer wants? Companies will have to start competing over price, customer support, and, most importantly, innovation. Brand-new product categories will be created at a rapid pace in order to stay competitive in this new AI-dominated world.

A future in which AI and automation dominate the economic landscape isn’t the stuff of science fiction — it’s just around the corner. Those hoping to be on the forefront of this soon-to-be reality should begin learning as much as they can about automation and partnering with the increasing number of vendors in this field that can help them achieve their goals.

Businesses that rely on a lot of human time (the most expensive type of labor) should realize their competitive advantage will become less relevant to the competition as the world continues to automate. In a future where AI and automation work together, inventors and creatives will be the dominant players in this new economy. And I, for one, can’t wait.

image credit: economicvoice.com


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Aidan Cunniffe is the co-founder and CEO of Dropsource, a company that leverages automation technology to increase efficiencies and decrease the costs of software development. Based on his experience in the technology startup arena, Aidan co-founded the company while in college and has raised $5.6M in Venture Funding to date.  Follow Aidan @Dropsource

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