Business and Artificial Intelligence

Stephen DeAngelis

March 12, 2013

“A Singularity has no business model,” writes Science fiction author Bruce Sterling, “no major power group in our society is interested in provoking one, nobody who matters sees any reason to create one, there’s no there there. So, as a Pope once remarked, ‘Be not afraid.'” [“‘The Singularity’: There’s No There There,” Edge, January 2013] Sterling may be correct that there is currently no business model for a sentient computer, but that’s not surprising since a sentient computer has to be built. There are, however, numerous artificial intelligence (AI) systems, and they have been welcomed by the business world with open arms. My company, Enterra Solutions, is a good example. Enterra is an applied science and technology firm focusing on the development and application of an advanced artificial intelligence system, the Enterra Cognitive Reasoning Platform™ (“CRP” or the “Platform”). The Platform is generalized in structure to work across markets and disciplines; yet designed to be specifically applied to the challenges and data of individual industries and functional areas. We obviously believe there is a business model for our Platform or we have been wasting a lot of time and money developing it. To be fair, Sterling doesn’t doubt that a good case can be made for using AI applications in business. He is simply arguing that limited AI applications are being pursued (rather than Artificial General Intelligence — the so-called Singularity), because they are good enough for what businesses need right now.

Sterling’s remark nevertheless started me thinking about some of the things that are being accomplished today with the help of artificial intelligence — like getting messy students to clean their rooms. Last year Michael Crider reported that a group of nerds “banded together to create MOTHER, a combination of home automation, basic artificial intelligence, and gentle nagging designed to keep a domicile running at peak efficiency.” [“MOTHER artificial intelligence forces nerds to do the chores… or else,” Slash Gear, 21 February 2012] He explains:

“The aim is to create an AI suited for a home environment that detect issues and gets its users (i.e., the people living in the home) to fix it. Through an array of digital sensors, MOTHER knows when the trash needs to be taken out, when the door is left unlocked, et cetera. If something isn’t done soon enough, she it can even disable the Internet connection for individual computers. MOTHER can notify users of tasks that need to be completed through a standard computer, phones or email, or stock ticker-like displays. In addition, MOTHER can use video and audio tools to recognize individual users, adjust the lighting, video or audio to their tastes, and generally keep users informed and creeped out at the same time. MOTHER’s abilities are technically limitless – since it’s all based on open source software, those with the skill, inclination and hardware components can add functions at any time. Some of the more humorous additions already in the project include an instant dubstep command. You can build your own MOTHER (boy, there’s a sentence I never thought I’d be writing) by reading through the official Wiki and assembling the right software, sensors, servers and the like. Or you could just invite your mom over and take your lumps. Your choice.”

If you don’t believe that keeping a domicile clean is worth pursuing with the help of AI, perhaps saving lives better suits your sensibilities. Annual traffic fatalities have been trending downward since the 1980s, but there are still around 30,000 deaths occurring each year. Scientists believe that number can be significantly reduced through the use of vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications and AI. “More advanced versions of the systems can take control of a car to prevent an accident by applying brakes when the driver reacts too slowly to a warning.” [“Cars Avoid Crashes By Talking To Each Other,” by Joan Lowy, Associated Press,, 8 June 2012] Lowy reports that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration “has been working on the technology for the past decade along with eight automakers: Ford, General Motors, Honda, Hyundai-Kia, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Toyota and Volkswagen.” Scott Belcher, president of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America, told Lowy, “We think this is really the future of transportation safety, and it’s going to make a huge difference in the way we live our lives.” Lowy continues:

“The technology is already available, said Rob Strassburger, vice president for safety of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. He said what’s needed is for the government to set standards so that all automakers use compatible technology. Some of the safety technologies for V2V are already available in cars, although they tend to be offered primarily on higher-end models. Together, the currently available technologies and the future V2V systems may effectively form a kind of autopilot for the road. Said Strassburger: ‘The long-term trajectory for these technologies is the vehicle that drives itself — the driverless car.'”

Adrian Gonzalez cites some sobering statistics about the number of traffic fatalities that involve distracted drivers, then writes:

“Fortunately, automakers are starting to embed technologies from tomorrow’s driverless cars into today’s vehicles. For example, check out this collision warning and emergency brake system Volvo Trucks introduced last year. The system, using lasers and sensors, detects when a collision is likely to occur and it alerts the driver with visual and audible alarms. If the driver fails to take action, the system will apply the brakes, first gently and then hard. It’s amazing to see how quickly the truck comes to a full stop, even while carrying a 40-ton load.” [“Beware, Driverless Cars Are Everywhere!” Logistics Viewpoints, 27 February 2013]

Gonzalez concludes, “Until these systems become standard features in all cars and trucks, we’ll just have to keep our hands on the wheel, eyes on the road, and mind on driving because you never know when one of those ‘driverless cars’ next to you will suddenly veer into your lane or slam on the brakes in front of you.” Researchers in England are also working on an AI system that can be used to control traffic signals. [“Artificial Intelligence Used to Create Traffic Control Systems,” by Tiffany Kaiser, Daily Tech, 27 August 2012] Obviously, the automobile industry believes it has found a business case for AI.

Artificial intelligence applications are also finding a home in the agricultural sector. It’s common knowledge that insect infestations can devastate crops. Traditionally baited tra
ps have been used to monitor for destructive insects. Unfortunately, collecting the data is both time consuming and results have been time delayed. That may change. “Taiwanese scientists are doing it a better way: automating the process with infrared lasers that scan the traps.” [“Artificial Intelligence Predicts and Combats Crop-Destroying Fruit Flies,” by Colin Lecher, Popular Science, 27 August 2012] Lecher explains how the system works:

“Every time the beam is broken, add one to the tally. That number is radioed to a local station every 30 minutes, where officials can monitor it. The traps are also fitted with weather sensors to help keep track–high levels of humidity or other changes would increase the likelihood of an infestation. So far they’ve set up 240 traps to regularly monitor the flow of fruit flies. When a trap counts more than 1,024 fruit flies in 10 days, it sets off an alert. But algorithms help it learn what’s normal for the area and current weather, letting it adjust to specific situations. By testing that system on data from past traps, they found it could predict an outbreak with 88 percent accuracy.”

Global supply chains are another area in which AI applications have found a business model. Steve Banker reports, “ToolsGroup is incorporating machine-learning technology into its demand planning solution. Machine learning, which is a branch of artificial intelligence (AI), uses specially-designed algorithms to generate predictions based on entered data. ToolsGroup is using AI to improve its demand forecasting capabilities.” [“Dell Uses Artificial Intelligence at Global Command Centers,” Logistics Viewpoints, 19 November 2012] For his post, Banker talked to Owen Panko, the Director of Program and Project Management at Dell’s Global Command Centers. He learned that “Dell has five global command centers, analogous to NASA’s mission control center, staffed with about 200 people globally. These control towers use business process management (BPM), AI, and analytics as core tools to support their service delivery supply chain. These command towers provide visibility and process flows to parts, people, call center activity, and their technology resolution experts.”

Other areas in which business cases have been proven for AI systems are healthcare and utilities. In the healthcare sector, AI applications are used to make diagnoses and to detect fraud. There have been a number of articles about how IBM’s Watson is now being used to help doctors diagnose diseases. To learn more about how AI is being used to detect fraud, read my post entitled Illuminating (and Eliminating) Fraud using Dark Data. In the utility sector, AI systems are being used to help manage loads on the electrical grid (see, for example, “Palm creator’s brain-mimicking software helps manage the smart grid,” by Derrick Harris, Gigaom, 29 January 2013] Obviously, I’ve only scratched the surface of ways that AI can be used in the business world. Frankly, business people do reflect Sterling’s ambivalence towards the development of Artificial General Intelligence, but they are excited about the possibilities being opened by limited AI applications.