“With artificial intelligence, we are summoning the devil.”
But according to Daniel Pitchford, co-founder of AI Business, this view, while pretty common, is over-egging the situation slightly.
Pitchford set up AI Business, an “online content portal for artificial intelligence and its real-world applications” back in 2014 with the intention of demystifying AI for businesses and trying to cut through some of the more hyperbolic beliefs about AI.
There is no doubting Musk is not alone in his apocalyptic view of AI so Pitchford clearly has his work cut out in converting the business masses but what, in his view, is behind this rather extreme reaction?
“The fear stems from change,” he says.
“Whether it is AI or whether it is the industrial revolution – whatever the change is – that is what people fear because humans don’t really like to change.
But he believes that AI is destined to find its way into many aspects of our working lives; changing processes, the economic landscape, how businesses work, what kind of businesses there are and, inevitably, the impact on jobs.
“We set up the publication to demystify what AI can and will do and be more realistic about narrow AI,” he says.
He draws a distinction between general intelligence AI where a computer can think at the same level as a human and, ultimately, outthink a human, and the narrow AI which is what we see today.
He believes the arrival of general intelligence AI could be anything up to 100 years away and makes a compelling case for just how mundane, but ultimately transformational, today’s AI can be.
He says that the successful application of AI in business can be as simple as an MOT garage automating their booking system to reduce staff costs.
And although there are exciting potential applications in various sectors, particularly in healthcare, he wants businesses to understand that AI is not about wholesale transformation but improving processes and profitability.
Indeed, one of the main reasons that AI has struggled to make more of an impact in business, he believes, is that business leaders have perhaps expected too much too soon.
“What we try to do is educate businesses to be clear on the metrics – what are you looking to achieve? What is the ROI and outcome before you start. Is that realistic?
“A lot of people think AI is going to change the world and if they plug a piece of software or application on top of what they are already doing their business is going to transform overnight, and then end up bitterly disappointed when it isn’t,” he says.
Which is where he hopes his business can play a crucial role. Starting out as a blog written in his and his business partner’s spare time, AI Business quickly grew to become a trusted source of AI insight for business across the world by producing business-useful content, in contrast to the academic content that dominated at the time.
But with his background in business event production, Pitchford was aware that for AI Business to become truly indispensable to the business community, it had to adopt a thoroughly analogue approach and bring vendors and businesses together face to face.
From 400 attendees at its inaugural AI Summit in London in 2016, AI Business is now the leading brand globally hosting events in London, New York, San Francisco, Munich, Hong Kong, Singapore and Cape Town. The 2019 Summit in London alone drew 25,000 AI enthusiasts.
So clearly there is an appetite to understand the applications and implications of AI in the business world, but what is the destination?
“Ultimately, the future of AI is about increasing productivity and that’s what politicians and governments get excited about – what can it do for our GDP? That is the big end goal,” Pitchford explains.
A 2017 report from PWC estimated that UK GDP could increase by more than 10 per cent by 2030 as a result of AI, a cash equivalent of £232bn, which is no small shakes.
But the UK is not the only nation eyeing the benefits of AI, with Pitchford outlining a global AI arms race between China and the US, each vying for the position of the world’s AI superpower.
“A lot of people are saying China will emerge as the AI superpower. Over the last two years, Asia has overtaken Europe in terms of the amount being invested by enterprises and businesses in the adoption of AI whereas two years ago, Europe was ahead.”
He says that China’s rapid emergence can be explained by the level of investment the Chinese government is putting into AI with latest estimates placing it as high as $300bn (£240bn): “As you move from innovation to implementation there is a massive opportunity which they are acutely aware of, hence the investment they are pouring in.”
Such is the rate of change in AI development and implementation, it would be foolish to bet on any one nation or region becoming the dominant power just yet. But in the meantime, AI Business intends to build on its own dominance in this space following its recent acquisition by publishing giant Informa.
“The future is scale,” Pitchford says. “What we have with Informa is that opportunity of scale. The scale of the events and other acquisitions made by the group help that in terms of collaboration and opportunities.”
And as for the allegedly demonic heart of AI? Pitchford says that proponents are acutely aware of the potential dangers and are actively addressing it.
“There is a lot being invested by the big players in understanding how AI can support society rather than just generate profit,” he says.
So perhaps the robot apocalypse might yet be averted by traditional human compassion.