Smart thinking

If Artificial Intelligence (AI) is defined as machines accessing all available data to make smart, quick and easy decisions for us, then you’ve probably already embraced AI technology.

Used a sat nav to drive somewhere? Watched movie X because you liked movie Y? That’s AI in action in our everyday lives.

Our favourite brands have been experimenting with the new technology for several years. Adidas and Nike use AI to help customers generate bespoke ready-to-wear sportswear products.

Twitter uses AI algorithms to predict which tweets we’d most like to see. Trade Me uses AI to give us recommendations on what to buy based on previous purchases and searches.

Communications, entertainment and retail are just some of the areas where AI is making its presence felt, thanks in part to the development of ever-more sophisticated face and speech recognition technology.

“The fact that we can now talk to computers to control our home’s lighting or the room temperature and whether to have the blinds open or closed – this is not minor. What was once very difficult to do is now very easy,” says Michael Whitbrock, one of the world’s leading scientists in the field of AI and professor at the School of Computer Science at The University of Auckland.

“AI used to be considered a problem, purely in terms of things like speech recognition – which actually works really well now and, for instance, navigating your car. Now, we expect the computer to tell us how to get somewhere. It will be completely accurate and speak very good English, or any other language for that matter,” he says.

Professor Whitbrock believes agriculture, conservation and the environment are the sectors where New Zealand AI can play a leading role and enjoy some dramatic long-term benefits.

“When you think about how many people there are in New Zealand, and how many animals and plants we have to take care of, it’s a daunting task. However, it’s one in which computers are giving a lot of helpful capabilities in various kinds of husbandry – either environment or animal-related – or with managing the effects of tourism.”

Researchers from Victoria University of Wellington have recorded thousands of birdcalls of currently threatened species, then used Google-built AI software to identify the location and number of these calls. Biologists can now identify and manage influencing factors through the data (such as territorial activity and any threat from predators) to help our rare bird species survive and flourish.

“We have some unique characteristics in New Zealand,” Professor Whitbrock says. “We have a culture which is very accepting of innovation and very accepting of various kinds of experimentation. New Zealand is also doing quite a good job of maintaining public data in a way which can be used beneficially, both for society and for individual New Zealanders.

“It has got a relatively high level of trust, and justifiably so.
It’s a place where that sort of data is much less likely to be abused than in some other places. We’re a society that cares about using that data for the greater good,” he adds.

True AI is about machines learning on their own. While a lot of companies will claim they are using AI technology, it’s a very broad term. Moreover, it’s a movement which is evolving every day, and we’re only at the tip of the AI iceberg in understanding how the technology can make a positive impact on our lives.

Reported by Ben Cook for our AA Directions Autumn 2021 issue

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