With technology governing almost every aspect of our lives, industry experts are defining these modern times as the "platinum age of innovation"; verging on the threshold of discoveries that could change human society irreversibly, for better or worse.
At the forefront of this revolution is the field of artificial intelligence (AI), a technology that is more vibrant than ever due to the acceleration of technological progress in machine learning - the process of giving computers with the ability to learn without being explicitly programmed - as well as the realisation by big tech vendors of its potential.
One major tech behemoth fuelling the fire of this fast moving juggernaut called AI is Intel, a company that has long invested in the science and engineering of making computers more intelligent.
The Californian company held an 'AI Day' in San Francisco showcasing its new strategy dedicated solely to AI, with the introduction of new AI-specific products, as well as investments for the development of specific AI-related tech. And Alphr were in town to hear all about it.
Betting big on AI
Intel promised that it will evolve the way it develops products and technology within the next three years by reducing the time it takes to train a computer learning model, which in turn, will give way for what it calls "the next wave of computing", or AI.
"We're really evolving to be a company that powers all the billions of smart and connected devices, and to look at that you have to think about the importance of artificial intelligence; a critical component in those connected devices," Intel CEO Brian Krzanich said on stage at the firm's AI Day. "We are looking at investing - through our technology and acquisitions - to build and fuel AI across everything we do."
At the forefront of these AI ambitions is a new platform called Nervana, which follows Intel's acquisition of deep learning startup Nervana Systems earlier this year. Setting its sights on an area currently dominated by Nvidia's graphics processing unit (GPU) technology, one of the Nervana platform's main focuses will be deep learning and training neural networks - the software process behind machine learning that is based on a set of algorithms that attempt to model high level abstractions in data. But unlike Nvidia, this will be using non-GPU tech.
Diane Bryant, executive vice president and general manager of Intel's Data Centre Group, added that this non-GPU technology, also known as Nervana, will be responsible for ushering the next phase of AI: a faster, more intelligent army of machines that can think in the same way humans do.
"We expect the Intel Nervana platform to produce breakthrough performance and dramatic reductions in the time to train complex neural networks," she said. "Before the end of the decade, we will deliver a 100-fold increase in performance that will turbocharge the pace of innovation in the emerging deep learning space."
Intel will integrate Nervana's technology into its Xeon and Xeon Phi super powerful data centre processor range in order to eliminate the need for GPUs. The company will test the Nervana Engine chip, codenamed 'Lake Crest', during the first half of 2017 and make it available later in the year. This will be optimised specifically for neural networks "to deliver the highest performance for deep learning and unprecedented compute density with a high-bandwidth interconnect", Bryant said.
But a strong AI future is down to only one company betting big on intelligent machines, and as you'd probably expect, Intel isn't the only company prioritising AI in this golden era of computing by making it a main focus for research and development, and plonking it at the very front of its future strategy. Some of the globe's other dominating tech firms, such as Google and Microsoft, have also been investing by the truckload into strengthening their AI offering.
Google, for instance, is investing heavily in research exploring virtually all aspects of machine learning, including deep learning and more classical algorithms, something it calls “Machine Intelligence”. This focuses specifically on language, speech, translation, visual processing, ranking and prediction, applying learning algorithms to understand and generalise.
So what will Intel and the like hope to achieve with this push into a more intelligent future? One way is in manufacturing, as intelligent computer systems replace certain human-operated jobs. According to Dr Kevin Curran, senior member of the IEEE and reader of computer science at Ulster University states, it's only inevitable that AI will help to shape the way we will work, revolutionising our manufacturing processes at a rapid pace.
“AI is crucial for all machines learning and adaptive their behaviour so they can modify existing capabilities to cope with environmental changes allowing the machines to make much more informed manufacturing decisions eventually replacing humans in many aspects of the manufacturing process," he said.
Many industry experts are defining this as the "fourth industrial revolution"; how advances in AI will lead to a "hollowing out" of middle-income, medium skilled jobs - such as construction, accounts and transport - thanks to the computerisation of the manufacturing industry.
If the first industrial revolution was the mechanisation of production using water and steam power, followed by the second which introduced mass production with the help of electric power, then the third is what we are currently experiencing: the digital revolution and the use of electronics and IT to further automate production. The fourth industrial revolution is therefore the vision of the 'smart factory', where cyber-physical systems monitor physical processes, create a virtual copy of the physical world and make decentralised decisions.