The trend is unstoppable. Machines are learning to listen and speak, to recognise photos and analyse texts, to evaluate sensor data and optimise processes, to drive vehicles and help with the household – we’re going to be surrounded everywhere by smart machines.
The smartphone was just the beginning. By the next decade, the Smart Car, the self-driving, electric and networked car, will just be as commonplace as the Smart Factory – also known as Industrie 4.0 – or the smart Grid, which will optimally balance supply and demand in future energy systems and detect technical problems before a component fails. When it comes to buildings, we can look forward to the Smart Home, an intelligent house that provides more comfort, more safety and energy savings. Even entire cities are already being planned as Smart Cities which will network their infrastructures – from transportation to the electricity and heating grids – and make control and management easier. Not only are digitalisation and automation inherently driving all these smart machines and systems, but first and foremost a trend that will radically change all aspects of life: Artificial Intelligence. Following several years of stagnation, the fact that this area is just now developing so explosively is due to four factors that are strongly propelling one another forward:
When machine learning, cognitive computers and the best robots all come together, they will bring about a revolution such as the world has never seen.
1. The enormous increase in the performance of microchips.
Today’s best smartphones can do calculations as fast as a supercomputer of the mid-1990s, at one ten-thousandth of the cost and energy consumption. And we can expect another similar increase – in computing power, storage capacity and data transfer rate – in the next 25 years.
2. The miniaturisation of components.
Cameras and sensors are becoming ever smaller and cheaper. The fact that they’re also needed for robots and smartphones as well as for autonomous vehicles or the Smart Home results in boosted production runs and reduced prices.
3. More powerful software and hardware.
So-called deep-learning algorithms permit the functioning of billions of neurons to be simulated. Specifically, this tremendously improves the automatic recognition of images, text and language. In addition, researchers have developed neuromorphic chips which emulate the behaviour of neurons not by using software, but electronically: they learn ten thousand times faster than our brains and millions of times faster than a supercomputer.
4. The information explosion on the Internet.
Currently, every day people and machines produce ten times more new information than is contained in all the books in the world. By 2020, this data treasure trove will quintuple again, and almost 40 per cent will be transmitted or stored using Internet technologies, i.e. in the Cloud. All the billions of images, text, video and audio files can be used as perfect training material for smart machines. In this way, the latter can continually improve the way they learn to see, read and speak. In addition, future robots will no longer carry everything they need in the way of information and skills around with them, but will be able to download all this as apps from the “RoboNet” or even outsource tasks to the net. All these trends and technologies prove one thing: the smart machines of the future will learn on their own, acquire knowledge and continually get better at assisting people. We’ll be able to have real conversations with our smartphones, computer systems will sift through millions of patient records, legal cases or stock market news for doctors, lawyers or bankers and give wise recommendations. In factories and warehouses, collaborative robots with work directly with people – hand in hand, so to speak. Autonomous trolleys will roll along sidewalks, while drones in the air deliver urgent packages and more and more people are driven comfortably to their destinations in autonomously driving cars. In short, in the future we will live in a community of people and smart machines – and we should already be preparing today for how we’ll deal with this and make the most of it.
Are robots and smart computers a blessing for humanity, or rather a threat to jobs, privacy and security? In his book* “Smart Machines – how artificial intelligence is changing our lives”, Dr. Ulrich Eberl vividly and precisely describes the fascinating developments in the field that addresses the core of our very identity: human intelligence.