Artificial Intelligence is the Future of Computing
What is a computer? Right now, the biggest technology companies in the world are battling to provide a definition. And their answer will help shape the future of the industry.
Last week, The Verge, a popular culture/technology website, ran a story about what modern computing hardware will become. Spoiler alert: After surveying offerings from Apple, Alphabet and Microsoft, editors concluded the answer is complicated.
That conclusion may seem glib. However, the normally smart editors at The Verge are missing something big.
The future is probably not in the rearview mirror. It’s not just a better laptop.
The future of computing is software, not hardware.
We are living in an age in which powerful cloud computing networks make supercomputing ubiquitous and relatively inexpensive. Within two years, 5G wireless networks will kill latency. Add optical, audio, GPS and other sensors commoditized by smartphone mass production, and you have the ingredients for a computing device that is all-knowing, blazing fast and contextually aware.
The odds of that computer being an aluminum clamshell is nil.
Understanding this transformation is key. It explains why Alphabet, Microsoft and Amazon are betting their future on powerful cloud computing networks and artificial intelligence, the branches of computer science that teach computers to learn like humans by recognizing and understanding patterns.
These companies also have key scale advantages that will ensure future profitability. Building large cloud and AI environments is prohibitively expensive for smaller enterprises. Training AI sucks up a lot of computing power.
In March, Recode reported the triumvirate spent a record $20 billion in 2017 total to equip and build new data centers. The outlay was more than the previous three years combined. Let that sink in for a moment.
At the same time, they are leading a gold rush of new AI investment.
In December 2017, The Economist reported the largest technology companies had acquired 110 AI companies since 2010. The value of those investments surged beyond $22 billion.
At Alphabet, machine learning is in its corporate DNA. Machine learning is trial-and-error on a massive scale. Legions of computers crunch through enormous sets of data, learning through progression.
Since 1994, the company has depended on it for Google Search and the development of its digital advertising model. Today, it is the engine that powers every service at Alphabet.
In 2016, Jeff Bezos, chief executive officer at Amazon, declared AI is its fourth pillar, behind ecommerce, Amazon Prime, its membership service, and Amazon Web Services, its cloud division.
And in 2017, Satya Nadella, chief executive officer at Microsoft, changed its corporate mission from mobile and cloud first, to AI first. The new strategy involved building AI into every software application and service to ensure the user experience spanned every device.
All three companies have made voice a cornerstone of their AI efforts. Developers can build applications for Google Assistant, Alexa and Microsoft Cortana that run everywhere.
It is not hard to see the future of computing. It begins with a personal digital assistant that lives in the cloud. That assistant is unique to its user and will have access to all personal data. It will also be in a constant state of refinement. It will learn.
It’s the future promised in the 2013 film, “Her.” The Spike Jonze dark romantic comedy is the story of a man and his love affair with his AI digital assistant. It is a strange concept. But, it is not too far from the realm of possibility given how quickly AI is progressing.
Ray Kurzweil, the noted futurist and chief engineer at Google, was a technical adviser to the film.
Today, Kurzweil is tasked with bringing AI to Gmail, the popular email client. AI networks quickly scan every email, looking for keywords and context, before offering an automated response. It is all still rudimentary, but you can see the direction.
The company is using billions of emails as data to refine AI algorithms that understand written context. It is a small first step toward digital assistants capable of conversation.
Amazon uses AI to tailor recommendations at its giant online marketplace and to choreograph its 80,000 warehouse robots. And Microsoft is working with partners to build always on thin and light computers enhanced by Cortana.
I have been encouraging my members to buy Amazon (AMZN), Alphabet (GOOGL) and Microsoft (MSFT) on pullbacks. Their distinct scale advantages are a big barrier to upstarts.
It’s important for investors to look forward. The future of computing is not complicated, and it is going to be a big business. Thankfully, it is all being carefully laid out right now.
Jon D. Markman