Exponential Technologies: Artificial Intelligence, Real Performance

This is a fourth post on a series of posts on exponential technologies (see part 1part 2 and part 3).

Why Manufacturers Need to Ditch Purchase Price Variance

Yesterday, I realized I was running out of underwear, which means that I didn’t have any more excuses to not do my laundry. As I was walking down the street, I pulled out my phone and without clicking any button I said: “Ok Google, remind me to do laundry when I get home.”

Despite my strong Spanish accent, the phone perfectly understood what I meant to say. Four hours later, as soon as I opened the door to my apartment I felt a vibration in my pants. My phone knows where I live and it used its GPS to figure out that I had just arrived home. I looked at the screen, and saw the reminder. A couple of hours later… I had a new set of clean underwear. Thank you, Google!

Samantha, what do my metals procurement options look like? “Her” image courtesy of Warner Bros.

This is not just an example of low-level artificial intelligence, but also a sign that AI is reaching the knee of the exponential growth curve, getting ready to run wild as a disruptive technology. AI is an exponential technology about to be found everywhere in our daily lives and jobs.

Most of the tasks that we perform day-to-day can be broken down into four fundamental skills: looking, reading, writing, and integrating knowledge. Today, we are at the peak of where computers can perform all these skills better than the average human. Let’s take a look at them:


It’s impressive how much better computers are getting at this. A good example is the ImageNet competition, which evaluates algorithms for object detection and image classification. Computers in this competition are now able to take any image or object, like an eagle or a BMW, and correctly slot them into unique categories such as birds or cars.

Reading and Writing

Today, there are AIs that can correctly decipher everything from a children’s book to complex tax forms far faster than humans. Companies are developing software that can analyze your documents infinite times faster that you could and for a fraction of the cost. And they even can do the writing for you.

Narrative Science is a technology company that knows writing AI well, the company has developed a platform that analyzes data from disparate sources, understands what is important to the end user, and then automatically generates perfectly written narratives. Credit Suisse is already making use of it. The technology automatically analyzes data from thousands of companies and then generates a written report in English that helps bankers to make their investment decisions. I bet the bank won’t be hiring many more low-level financial analysts from now on…

Integrating Knowledge

This is all about the cloud and its ability to take information from everywhere and accurately reach conclusions from it. In 2011, IBM’s supercomputer Watson bested humans on Jeopardy and just two years ago IBM uploaded Watson to the cloud so companies can now use it as a development platform.

How Does This Affect Procurement/Supply Chains?

It wasn’t that long ago when we manually cataloged data with a pencil and used our brains to crunch the numbers. That was quickly replaced by Microsoft Excel spreadsheets and soon Artificial Intelligence will replace it all. The key difference between AI databases and spreadsheets is what you can do with that data.

Ray Kurzweil, futurist author of five books on artificial intelligence, director of engineering at Google and founder of the Singularity University, predicts that computers will be more intelligent than humans within 15 years. That means that computers will get your jokes, be funny and be creative. Yes, your daughter/son-in-law might be an operating system, just like in the movie “Her.” 15 years seems scarily soon, but Kurzweil has been very accurate in most of his futuristic predictions so far.

Kurzweil believes that biological humans will not be outpaced by the AIs “because they (we) will enhance themselves (ourselves) with AI. It will not be us versus the machines (whether the machines are enemies or lovers), but rather, we will enhance our own capacity by merging with our intelligent creations. We are doing this already.”

If this prediction materializes, think about all the things you do today that these machines will do for you with a fraction of the time and with a fraction of the cost. Maybe it’s already too late to take courses on Microsoft Excel…

Will we soon see the industrial buyer being an intelligent machine that interacts with other artificial machines (suppliers)? I am sure Kurzweil believes that.

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  • Good article. One quibble. There is no single knee on an exponential curve. You are always at the knee!

  • The fact that there are now more devices connected to the Internet than people should alert us to the realization that its evolution is properly regarded as a autonomous natural process and, on the larger scale, beyond human control.

    Most folk consistently overlook the reality that distributed “artificial superintelligence” has actually been under construction for many decades.

    Not driven by any individual software company or team of researchers, but rather by the sum of many human requirements, whims and desires to which the current technologies react.

    Among the more significant motivators are such things as commerce, gaming, social interactions, education and sexual titillation. Virtually all interests are catered for and, in toto provide the impetus for the continued evolution of the Internet.

    By relinquishing our usual parochial approach to this issue in favor of the overall evolutionary “big picture” provided by many fields of science. the emergence of a new predominant cognitive entity (from the Internet, rather than individual machines) is seen to be not only feasible but inevitable.

    The separate issue of whether it well be malignant, neutral or benign towards we snoutless apes is less certain, and this particular aspect I have explored elsewhere.

    Stephen Hawking, for instance, is reported to have remarked “Whereas the short-term impact of AI depends on who controls it, the long-term impact depends on whether it can be controlled at all,”

    This statement reflects the narrow-minded approach that is so common-place among those who make public comment on this issue. In reality, as much as it may offend our human conceits, the march of technology and its latest spearhead, the Internet is, and always has been, an autonomous process over which we have very little real control.

    Seemingly unrelated disciplines such as geology, biology and “big history” actually have much to tell us about the machinery of nature (of which technology is necessarily a part) and the kind of outcome that is to be expected from the evolution of the Internet.

    This much broader “systems analysis” approach, freed from the anthropocentric notions usually promoted by the cult of the “Singularity”, provides a more objective vision that is consistent with the pattern of autonomous evolution of technology that is so evident today.

    Very real evidence indicates the rather imminent implementation of the next, (non-biological) phase of the on-going evolutionary “life” process from what we at present call the Internet. It is effectively evolving by a process of self-assembly.

    The “Internet of Things” is proceeding apace and pervading all aspects of our lives. We are increasingly, in a sense, “enslaved” by our PCs, mobile phones, their apps and many other trappings of the increasingly cloudy net.

    We are already largely dependent upon it for our commerce and industry and there is no turning back. What we perceive as a tool is well on its way to becoming an agent.

    There are at present an estimated 2 Billion Internet users. There are an estimated 13 Billion neurons in the human brain. On this basis for approximation the Internet is even now only one order of magnitude below the human brain and its growth is exponential.

    That is a simplification, of course. For example: Not all users have their own computer. So perhaps we could reduce that, say, tenfold. The number of switching units, transistors, if you wish, contained by all the computers connecting to the Internet and which are more analogous to individual neurons is many orders of magnitude greater than 2 Billion. Then again, this is compensated for to some extent by the fact that neurons do not appear to be binary switching devices but instead can adopt multiple states.

    Without even crunching the numbers, we see that we must take seriously the possibility that even the present Internet may well be comparable to a human brain in processing power.

    And, of course, the degree of interconnection and cross-linking of networks within networks is also growing rapidly.
    The emergence of a new and predominant cognitive entity that is a logical consequence of the evolutionary continuum that can be traced back at least as far as the formation of the chemical elements in stars.

    Editor’s note: The poster is the author of the book “The Intricacy Generator: Pushing Chemistry and Geometry Uphill.”


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