When tomorrow comes

This morning, I spoke to a device in my room “is my flight later today on time?”. Having an affirmative answer, I ask ‘her’  to call an Uber to take me to the airport. A car showed up at my door a few minutes later – as I saw a notification on the screen of  my smartphone. Very soon that car would have no driver in it. Someone seeing this only 10 years ago would be astonished.

Many people following technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI) feel a profound sense that the world is changing at an abysmal speed. Phones that give advice about the best restaurant nearby or the fastest route to work today; artificial intelligences that write news stories or advise doctors; 3-D printers that make replacement parts—for humans; gene editing that can cure disease or bring extinct species back to life; new forms of corporate organization that marshal thousands of on-demand workers so that consumers can summon services at the push of a button in an app.

Google AlphaGo, an artificial intelligence program, beat the world’s best human Go player, an event that was widely predicted to be at least twenty years away. Until it happened in 2016. What else might hit us even sooner than we expect? An AI running on a $35 Raspberry Pi computer beat a top US Air Force fighter pilot trainer in combat simulation. The world’s largest hedge fund has announced that it wants an AI to make three-fourths of management decisions, including hiring and firing. Oxford University researchers estimate that almost 50% of human tasks, including many white-collar jobs, may be done by machines within as little as twenty years.

Without owning a single room, Airbnb has more rooms on offer than some of the largest hotel groups in the world. Airbnb has under 3,000 employees, while Hilton has 152,000! New forms of corporate organization are outcompeting businesses based on best practices that we’ve followed for the lifetimes of most business leaders.

Huber is run by algorithms. All decisions are hypothesis to be tested. No top down management, few hierarchies. Just data! Lots of it.

We all know the story of Kodak. Well, they are not alone. Companies that don’t embrace the next wave of innovation will be part of the history. The today powerful German car makers can well be the Kodaks of tomorrow as Tesla increases the pressure to deliver.

What do AI, self-driving cars, on-demand services, and income inequality have in common? They are telling us, loud and clear, that we’re in for massive changes in work, business, and the economy.

I’ve spent 25 years of my life as a researcher, machine learning expert and innovation consultant. I identify important innovations, The world is becoming an interconnected space and data created was never been so abundant.

Is Uber, losing money like Amazon, which went on to become a hugely successful company that transformed retailing, publishing, and enterprise computing, or like a dot-com company that was destined to fail?

The World Wide Web was a unicorn, even though it didn’t make Tim Berners-Lee a billionaire.  Google Maps was a unicorn. On the bus not long ago, I watched one old man show another how the little blue dot in Google Maps followed us along as the bus moved. The newcomer to the technology was amazed. Most of us now take it for granted that our phones know exactly where we are, and not only can give us turn-by-turn directions exactly to our destination—by car, by public transit, by bicycle, and on foot—but also can find restaurants or gas stations nearby or notify our friends where we are in real time.

AI-powered personal agents like Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, the Google Assistant, and Microsoft Cortana are unicorns. Uber and Lyft too are unicorns, but not because of their valuation. Unicorns are the kinds of apps that make us say, “WTF?” in a good way.

Can you still remember the first time you realized that you could get the answer to virtually any question with a quick Internet search, or that your phone could route you to any destination? How cool that was, before you started taking it for granted? And how quickly did you move from taking it for granted to complaining about it when it doesn’t work quite right?

We are layering on new kinds of magic that are slowly fading into the ordinary. A whole generation is growing up that thinks nothing of summoning cars or groceries with a smartphone app, or buying something from Amazon and having it show up in a couple of hours, or talking to AI-based personal assistants on their devices and expecting to get results.

So what makes a real unicorn of this amazing kind?

1.  It seems unbelievable at first.

2.  It changes the way the world works.

3.  It results in an ecosystem of new services, jobs, business models, and industries.

All of these technologies are additive, and addictive. As they interconnect and layer on each other, they become increasingly powerful, increasingly magical. Once you become accustomed to each new superpower, life without it is like having your magic wand turn into a stick again.

These services have been created by human programmers, but they will increasingly be enabled by artificial intelligence. That’s a scary word to many people. But it is the next step in the progression of the unicorn from the astonishing to the ordinary. While the term artificial intelligence or AI suggests a truly autonomous intelligence, we are far, far from that eventuality. AI is still just a tool, still subject to human direction.

The nature of that direction, and how we must exercise it, is a key subject of this book. AI and other unicorn technologies have the potential to make a better world, in the same way that the technologies of the first industrial revolution created wealth for society that was unimaginable two centuries ago. AI bears the same relationship to previous programming techniques that the internal combustion engine does to the steam engine. It is far more versatile and powerful, and over time we will find ever more uses for it.

Will we use it to make a better world? Or will we use it to amplify the worst features of today’s world? So far, the “WTF?” of dismay seems to have the upper hand. “Everything is amazing,” and yet we are deeply afraid. Sixty-three percent of Americans believe jobs are less secure now than they were twenty to thirty years ago. By a two-to-one ratio, people think good jobs are difficult to find where they live. And many of them blame technology. There is a constant drumbeat of news that tells us that the future is one in which increasingly intelligent machines will take over more and more human work. The pain is already being felt. For the first time, life expectancy is actually declining in America, and what was once its rich industrial heartland has too often become a landscape of despair.