22 January 2019

Who is going to rule the brave new world?

Just before the Lunar New Year holidays, Lenovo Group Ltd. (00992.HK) spent a combined US$5.21 billion to buy the server business of International Business Machines Corp. (IBM) and Motorola Mobility’s handset-making business from Google Inc.

What intrigues the Hong Kong Economic Journal’s investor diary about the deals is not that a Chinese company was able to acquire these foreign assets without encountering tough regulatory hurdles, but that IBM and Google are perfectly willing to part with their low-end businesses while shoveling heaps of capital into the frontiers of science and industry such as artificial intelligence. 

Almost at the same time that it sold its low-profit server assets to Lenovo, IBM unveiled its plan to invest another US$1 billion in its Watson supercomputer system (named after the company’s founder Thomas J. Watson), which grabbed headlines in 2011 when it trounced past champions — humans — of the quiz show Jeopardy! to bag the US$1 million prize in an exhibition match. Meanwhile, Google put US$400 million into DeepMind Technologies Ltd., a British company working on artificial-intelligence innovations, to complement eight other robotic development firms such as Nest Labs that the search giant acquired over the past year.

The advances in the field of artificial intelligence are quite bewildering to the extent that what was the stuff of science fiction only a couple of decades ago has not only moved to the realm of the possible but is now a reality.

And it’s scary, for some quarters. Perhaps predicting that robots will rule humans in the not-too-distant future is stretching the imagination a bit much, but smart machines have indeed taken over many aspects of our lives — from factories that make our cars, phones that tell us when to wake up and what to do next, to the ubiquitous internet and its virtual world that merges with our real lives. 

The risk that one day, these powerful tools could threaten humans or trigger some unpredictable impact is quite real, the diary suggests.

In fact, their limitless possibilities have prompted the founder of DeepMind to ask Google, as a prerequisite to the deal, that they jointly establish an ethics board as a means of regulating the use of the company’s innovations.

The clear and present danger of artificial intelligence is that robots and computers are taking away jobs from humans — not just repetitive, mechanical, factory chores, but white-collar jobs from professionals, including accountants, programmers and medical technicians, as investor diary points out, citing The Economist.

In the field of journalism, for example, there’s Chicago-based Narrative Science, which offers computer programs that can write sports and financial news reports. The products can be tailor-made to meet the clients’ needs in terms of style, whether blog-like or straightforward. Many of the pre-results analyses and short articles published on Forbes’ website are actually produced by using these programs. Securities research firm Data Explorers also uses Narrative’s technology to provide market news services.

Kristian Hammond, one of Narrative’s founders, even boldly predicted that over 90 percent of the news coverage will be performed by robots in 15 years, with the possibility that one such report could win a Pulitzer Prize in journalism in five years.

Only the future can say whether all these advances in artificial intelligence would bring more good than harm, or the other way around, to humanity. But this early, the world’s top technology firms such as Google are sparing no effort and money to acquire a bigger share of the resources in this field. Simply, they want to be the leaders of the brave new world. 

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Freelance journalist

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