Will AI redistribute power and influence?

A San Francisco start-up is developing a new 'personal media' that will allow people to reach billions of other connected individuals

UBTECH's Lynx, a video-enabled humanoid robot with Amazon Alexa, is demonstrated at CES International Friday, Jan. 6, 2017, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
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Saudi Arabia is the latest nation to invite global policymakers to an artificial intelligence summit, announcing a March 2020 event on the eve of this week's Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh. However, while governments and businesses focus on AI's future role in governance, the digital economy and public services, there are those that see the new technology as an opportunity to re-distribute power and influence.

It sounds a bit like the advent of social media all over again: a new technology that gives ordinary people a voice that can be heard across the world, amplifying the best traits of humanity and heralding a new era of social change. The analogy seems easy to make, partly since one of the proponents of this leveraging of AI in this way is Biz Stone himself, co-founder of Twitter.

The comments were made at last week's One Young World Summit in London, during which Stone and Lars Buttler, chief executive of San Francisco-based The AI Foundation, introduced a new concept of 'personal media', enabled by artificial intelligence. The company is developing technology to allow anyone to create an artificial version of themselves to represent their interests anytime, anywhere. These personal avatars will look, sound and act like their creators.

According to the Stone and Buttler, just as the world moved from the mass media era to the social media era, it will now begin to move into the age of 'personal media'. The AI Foundation promises to help ordinary people harness the power of AI to drive positive social change around the world. Buttler believes that the future of social change is AI and if everyone has their own AI we can create a better, more just, and more abundant future.

There is one crucial difference between the arrival of social media and the arrival of AI media, and that is that social media became a digital grass roots movement first. Millions of internet users did indeed find a voice via platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, helping to popularise worthy causes, galvanise social consciousness and even start revolutions. Government, industry and media were late adopters. Not so with AI media.

Amazon's launch of its Alexa voice assistant in 2014 alerted business that natural language processing (NLP) was nearly ready for prime time. Amazon's AI voice platform not only brought conversational media content to Alexa smart speaker owners, but also provided a platform for developers — and, therefore, business — to create new AI content. SAR Insight estimates that smart speaker sales will increase to 92 million units this year. Yet smart speakers represent only a small fraction of devices enabled to deliver AI media. Alexa competitor Google Assistant is already available via more than one billion devices, and this is just the beginning.

As business continues to invest in chatbots and conversational AI, it won't be long before brands are able to continue AI conversations with their customers across a multitude of different connected devices, from home speakers, to smartphones and virtual assistants in cars, through to their stores in the mall.

The likes of Amazon, IBM, Google and Microsoft are investing billions of dollars in the development of AI technologies and solutions in a race for supremacy. Meanwhile, spending across speech and voice recognition markets is expected to increase into the tens of billions of dollars per annum during the next five years.

All this investment in artificial intelligence, NLP technologies and AI media, means that consumers are destined to live in a more conversational media environment that is, like it or not, heavily commercialised.

A recent survey by OC&C Strategy Consultants, forecasts that 'voice shopping' in the US will reach $40 billion a year by 2022. Consumers in more than 40 states across the country can make restaurant reservations, service bookings and other commercial orders via conversational AI, using Google Duplex. Google's first pilot programme outside North America started in New Zealand this month.

Today's social media users are in constant competition with big brands and celebrities to get their own voice heard. While the early days of social media gave rise to a new generation of activists, influencers and thought leaders, the most followed Twitter accounts in 2019 are entertainment figures, music celebrities and American presidents. Meanwhile, media agency Zenith predicts that advertisers will spend $84 billion on social media ads this year. In such an environment, full credit must be given to individuals such as Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg for gaining public attention in the face of celebrity competition, ubiquitous advertising and the noise level of 3.5 billion social media users.

Although personal invitations now seem to be in the offing for the new world of AI media, commercial interests are already heavily invested to make sure that their voices are heard. So, whilst socially minded initiatives like The AI Foundation are maybe sorely needed, they are not able to hand social causes the 'first mover' advantage that social media once did. In our new AI media world, they are the latecomers.

Carrington Malin is an entrepreneur, marketer and writer who focuses on emerging technologies