Articles/  Will the impact of AI and IoT on our society be a cause for optimism in 2017?

Will the impact of AI and IoT on our society be a cause for optimism in 2017?

Robots taking your job before taking over the world. Sensors tracking your every move - AI and IoT are the technologies most likely to cause us anxiety. But the benefits are vast and the time to understand the potential is now. IBM Watson’s Phil Westcott on the reasons to be optimistic.

2016 was a tough year to be an optimist. The world around us presented ever more complex political, social, economic and environmental challenges, and many of us entered the new year with trepidation and uncertainty. However, the world of technology lies at a juncture of immense opportunity. As an industry, tech is attracting the brightest, the most entrepreneurial and the most visionary. Making money in technology has greater alignment with advancing society at large than say, the financial industry of recent decades. So now, the richest ingenuity of the human race is now being channelled towards advancing our society and tackling social challenges. The internet as we know it will transform over the next decade… from a destination for information retrieval, shopping and entertainment, into a ubiquitous, unseen companion akin to electricity. Built on this transformation are two major technology revolutions: Artificial Intelligence and the Internet of Things.


Society and cities have always been defined by the people in them and the way in which they interact and collaborate. But increasingly this interaction has a digital presence running parallel with the physical. Our homes, our cars and our built environment are becoming ever more instrumented and interconnected. The fact that so many ‘things’ are now embedded with sensors and computing power means that our world is now humming with data; structured data (such as temperature readings) and unstructured data (such as video content). Some of the computing can be performed at or close to the device, known as ‘the edge’, but most of the hard core processing assimilated on the Cloud as Big Data. Advances in processing power means computers can make sense of it in real-time. From transport to agriculture, from crime fighting to healthcare, decision-makers in every walk of life are empowered to solve chronic, multi-dimensional and/or time means computers can make sense of it in real-time. From transport to agriculture, from crime fighting to healthcare, decision-makers in every walk of life are empowered to solve chronic, multi-dimensional and/or time sensitive problems with this data. In IBM, we describe this data as the great natural resource of the 21st century. IoT can bring an ‘enchantment’ to the physical world around us. 

“The richest ingenuity of the human race is now being channelled towards advancing our society and tackling social challenges”


Artificial Intelligence is set to storm into our lives during 2017, largely through the emergence of and our familiarisation with bots and Natural Language Interfaces. Less noticeable, but equally important is the underlying development of Ultra-personalisation, AI Discovery and Machine Learning. Built on the new digitised world of IoT, 2017 will see the following developments take root:

Bots: Many companies are training their bots to represent their brand, answering customer queries and building relationships through a new digital channel. Cognitive chat bots promise to displace the horrors of phone trees and on-hold music, remove language barriers and semantic errors, and derive answers of higher quality and more consistent and contextual to the customer. But one thing is clear - not all bots are created equal. Rules-based bots will soon yield the same frustrations in customers. Bots are more art than science and must be architected and trained by skilled teams to bring them to life, to personalise, humanise and create that delightful customer experience. These are all skills native to the agency mindset, and 2017 will see the best agencies stepping up to the mark. 

Natural Language Interfaces: As gifts were rolled out this Christmas, you’ll have noticed the number of devices that now have natural language interfaces. For now these ‘bots’ appear quite dumb, limited to controlling your music and a few neat gimmicks. But voice command will soon be the dominant mechanism to interact with computing power and the internet. 2017 will see the integration of these interfaces with our app catalogues, allowing a whole swathe of voice commanded services. For example, IBM is working with the likes of BMW, General Motors and Panasonic Automotive to bring intelligent co-pilot functionality into your driving experience. From practical advantages such as improved maintenance and safety, to enhanced experiences like entertainment and voice commerce, the car becomes a platform to engage the new internet.

Ultra-personalisation: Our digital footprint trails our every move, tweet, post or voice command. Brands and agencies that have embraced Big Data have been the success stories of the decade to date. But AI technology now has the ability to ultra-personalise, to understand the individual in a way never possible before, expanding their structured data footprint with their unstructured footprint. From a consumer perspective, we as citizens and consumers are often trading our privacy for utility. 2017 should bring this into focus as we, each as individuals, take a more active decision in what personal data we share with the brands that serve us. My hunch is that if it continues to improve the service we receive, it will be an acceptable trade-off for the vast majority of people.

AI Discovery: As the internet expands with a proliferation of data sources, AI plays a key role in guiding us. Traditional search will no longer suffice. For the ubiquitous internet to exist, we’ll need to uncover knowledge, not just information. This requires an ability to synthesise and interpret data that is structured and unstructured, present and past, contextual and rich. (“Where could Dave and I go for dinner tonight?” drawing upon for example: (i) Dave’s food preferences and health requirements, (ii) where we ate last time and our feedback, (iii) where we’ll be travelling from and avoiding the tube strike, (iv) a street party promoted on social media, (v) the weather, (vi) our calories burnt and mood as recorded by our wearables…). 

Machine Learning: This is the area of AI that scares people, and true enough it will need some regulation and stewarding over the coming years. But brought to its essence, Machine Learning is allowing a computing system to optimise iteratively against the mission you set it. So if you set it the mission of optimising your calorie intake or your commute to work, then the system will learn and improve and take into account the contextual conditions of ‘now’. Coupled with the above, this becomes incredibly useful. 

“we describe this data as the great natural resource of the 21st century”

For example, imagine the introduction of AI technology to provide real-time governance of a financial services institution. Auditing no longer needs to be a retrospective activity coupled with vast overhead. The system could be trained to red flag anomalies in the data and learn over time to improve and provide structural feedback.

Societal Impact

One negative association with AI is the threat to jobs. A much debated topic recently, we can look to history to learn that, most likely, our jobs will become more interesting, richer and more effective. The human or machine working in isolation will never be as effective as the partnership. 

“Bots are more art than science”


One example of such a partnership in action is in agriculture, where instrumented farming practices can track precise moisture levels in soil to improve yields and reduce the use of water resources and chemical fertilisers. And this is not just for the rich industrial nations; these technologies are being applied by NGOs to offer agricultural knowledge to illiterate farmers via natural voice interfaces.

A second example tackles the global issue of our ageing population. Understandably, you might consider elderly care as a preserve for the most human traits of compassion and personal contact. What role then for the robot? In caring for dementia, this technology can provide a reassuring (and ultimately patient) voice for sufferers and their families. Providing an “always on” companion to answer awkward questions a thousand times such as, “when did I last see my son?” or “when is the next meal served?”. For family members, there is a potential to be quietly monitoring without intruding into the privacy of your elderly loved ones. You could be alerted to ‘red flags’ from structured data - such as unusual biometrics – or from unstructured data – such as detection of stress levels in conversation with the AI companion.

These are just two examples of a global societal issue being tackled by IoT and AI technology. I could give countless others that great minds are now applying themselves to solving. As we embark on 2017, it is the technology sector - and the human ingenuity that is driving it - that give us cause for optimism.


Phil Westcott is Director, IoT Practice & Partnerships, IBM Watson Internet of Things


Originally published in #ThisConcernsYou -