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The Current and Future Landscape of AI and VR

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Cognitive technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual reality (VR) are here to stay, claimed Dr Susie Harding at Women in Tech Dublin 2019. We engage with AI constantly nowadays; it’s all around us, and in ways we couldn’t imagine even five years ago. VR technologies haven’t breached the technology wall yet, but they will become more tactile in the coming years.

In the last 2-3 years, we’ve seen everyday AI adoption grow exponentially. Eighty percent of smartphone users now check their phone before brushing their teeth, and AI has played a massive role in this "addiction", said Harding. AI learns what we find engaging, and over time starts to modify and adjust experiences so that you are seeing tailored content that engages you, and thereby keeps you hooked. Harding mentioned how we’ve all had nights where we go down the "YouTube hole" or binge an entire Netflix boxset in two days. Whether for good or bad, we can thank AI for this!

Harding mentioned that VR’s true potential has been promised for years, but just hasn’t quite breached the tech wall just yet:

Many people who try virtual reality in its traditional headset form are not exactly blown away by it, and it usually consists of some sort of funny animated cartoon type experience that ultimately just leaves you feeling nauseous! However, the technology is still very new, and many improvements are coming down the line.

Going forward, we’re going to see AI adoption in every single industry, from medicine to law to manufacturing to education, said Harding. While initially these interactions will be scary - to put our health in the hands of machines, and our children’s future being more tech-focused than ever - we are set to live longer and happier lives, by embracing not just AI, but tech as a whole.

Dr Susie Harding, head data scientist at Arvoia, spoke about the tech landscape at Women in Tech Dublin 2019. InfoQ interviewed her about the current and future landscape of AI and VR.

InfoQ: What impact does AI have on our society?

Dr Susie Harding: There is no doubt that the benefit that AI brings has been damped with the unethical and unjust use of AI we’ve seen in recent years. Scandals like those seen at Cambridge Analytica gave the industry the wake up call needed - these technologies are powerful tools, and unfortunately can be dangerous when in the wrong hands. Despite this, we must not let a few bad examples of AI mismanagement ruin the amazing potential these tools can bring.

As an example of the good AI can provide, we look to researchers at Socos labs in the US who recently carried out a study which combined wearable tech in the form of Google Glass; AI and neural brain waves were to predict when patients with alzeimhers would forget the name of a loved one, and use Google Glass to flash this name in front of the patients when the prediction of forgetting a name was identified.

InfoQ: How do companies exploit the possibilities that VR is offering?

Harding: A company in Florida called MagicLeap has been looking at an entirely different type of VR technology that doesn’t use the device as the processor, but rather uses your eyes and a brain as the processor. It basically projects images through your eyes into your cerebral cortex and your brain doesn’t know whether what you are seeing is real or virtual! People who have used this technology have said it tricks your brain, so even if you put your hand in front of your face, you aren’t able to tell whether the hand in front of your face is real or virtual!

VR technologies will also become more tactile in the coming years. Another fascinating area of VR research is in Haptics. Haptic gloves, which are incredibly futuristic looking gloves similar to those worn by Robocop, will completely change the way we shop online. Haptics will enable you to reach into the virtual world and touch the thing you are seeing on the screen, allowing you to feel the texture and weight of the item.

InfoQ: What do you expect AI will bring us in the future?

Harding: We’re going to see AI adoption in every single industry, for example:

  • Manufacturing: From preventative maintenance to the automation of human tasks, AI will enable more efficient work that’s less error prone but also higher quality.
  • Healthcare: Using image recognition technologies in conjunction with traditional radiology to read x-rays will reduce the number of false negatives and enable healthcare professionals to more accurately pinpoint disease.
  • Retail: Retailers will use augmented and virtual reality functionality in advertising. Immersive product catalogue visualization will grow dramatically, and by using tech like the haptics described above, shoppers will experience products before buying online.
  • Education: Technologies like Google Classroom are bringing education into the 21st century, and in time we’ll use AI to offer a more personalized, dynamic and effective approach to education and learning.

InfoQ: What’s needed to realize this AI future?

Harding: The two main things we need to focus on now for the future of tech are the upskilling of the workforce to ensure we don’t find ourselves in a situation similar to that experienced in the blue collar industries over the last 20-30 years, and we must start monitoring the use of AI for good.

In terms of upskilling, we need to start thinking about the types of skills we’ll require not only to build AI solutions, but also to deploy, support and maintain them. Some examples include:

  • Data Engineering: Nowadays we often have more data available to use than we know what to do with it, so it is vital to have data engineering professionals who can build the data warehouses, lakes and marts we’ll require to store and use data effectively.
  • DevOps & Infrastructure: Cloud computing has seen a massive increase in the last few years, and tech companies need teams of experts who can set up and manage these environments which are vital to offering real time, performant AI solutions.
  • General Counsel: Outside of the traditional tech roles, we’ll need to ensure the softer skill areas have upskilling too - for example, in the future we’ll require general counsel who are aware of the intricacies that come with tech IP - this is particularly prevalent to AI, where machine learning methods are open source solutions which anyone can use!
  • HR & Training:The tech industry grows at an incredible rate, and our recruiters need to keep pace with this to ensure they are always aware of the most in demand and important skill sets required.

To respond to the challenges around disinformation, data misuse, and the development and deployment of AI, tech companies need to start hiring chief ethics officers and launching ethics and society teams. We need to ask the difficult questions, both of ourselves and of the industry: why should tech companies monopolize and maximise from our data? What do we get from it? Ethical AI is now more important than ever, and each of us has to ensure this is front and center as we face this future of AI for good.

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