The New York Times on April 19 reported that OpenAI, a research lab based in San Francisco, paid its artificial intelligence (AI) research director Ilya Sutskever more than US$1.9 million (NT$56.3 million at today’s exchange rate) in 2016. The figure shocked the high-tech industry, as AI experts are becoming the darlings of start-ups.
AI is now the leading technology driving the profits of high-tech firms. However, while the AI industry is here to stay, there is a shortage of AI experts.
With the support of the Ministry of Science and Technology, several top universities in Taiwan are trying to rapidly cultivate additional AI engineers, hoping to integrate urgently needed machine-learning algorithms into industry’s latest applications and use the AI sector as a turning point in the march toward a “hub economy.”
During the Age of Discovery, which began in the 15th century, mature navigation technology allowed governments to send out fleets to explore new routes. Countries that were unable to join this wave of world exploration fell behind for several centuries. This example serves as inspiration to Taiwan — a small country developing a grand AI strategy.
The feasibility of AI was affirmed in the 1950s, although sufficient computational capability and data were absent at the time. The development of machine learning allowed electronic devices to simulate human decisions based on answers found in data. These techniques are the foundation of today’s AI technology.
Unlike science fiction movies, it is still difficult for humanoid machines to reach the state of a human’s mind and emotions, but based on years of accumulated “big data,” AI technology is fully capable of overcoming bottlenecks that industry had been unable to break through.
The opportunities for Taiwanese industry lie in integrating AI with industry.
First, in terms of the service sector, Uber and Lyft in the much-discussed “sharing economy” are good examples. Using AI mathematical calculations, they are able to offer swift and convenient ride-hailing services, while connecting their feedback systems to online social networks. The sharing economy of Uber promotes carpooling, which can increase drivers’ incomes without delaying passengers’ arrival times. It is a simple, but creative application of AI technology.
Next, in terms of the financial sector, the combination of financial technology with the popularization of the Internet is having a significant effect on the banking industry, while AI robots serving as financial advisors are beginning to penetrate the sector.
Financial services have different financial laws and regulations in many countries — such as varied information privacy laws — making it difficult to expand AI applications internationally. However, the trend of replacing banking professionals with AI technology continues, with such technology being successfully applied to online payments, finances, insurance and even loans.
Finally, in terms of the manufacturing sector, “smart manufacturing” is popular around the globe. Regardless of business size, manufacturers are responding to globalization by adopting AI technology for the “smart” integration of virtual and physical channels in manufacturing.
Traditional manufacturers in the US and EU are still striving for an “Industry 4.0” transformation. As investment pours in, AI start-ups in Silicon Valley are looking to help traditional manufacturers adopt AI technology.
An AI start-up has successfully changed Big River Steel, an Arkansas-based steel company with revenue of US$1.3 billion, into the world’s first “smart” steel mill.
The manufacturer has added AI to its production, engineering and marketing divisions and transformed its facilities into “smart manufacturing” facilities, turning a process that used to rely on human experience into one that relies on automated production management.
With machine learning, AI algorithms can automatically help the company make the best decisions throughout the process.
AI might never replace experienced workers who make decisions based on analog data, but the comprehensive application of AI technologies in various trades and professions to automate and optimize work — an Age of AI Exploration — has truly arrived.
Is Taiwan’s domestic industry ready to confront the coming onslaught of the AI era?
Chiang Jung-hsien is a distinguished professor in National Cheng Kung University’s Department of Computer Science and Information Engineering.
Translated by Eddy Chang
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