Thousands of years ago, oracles read the future through divine inspiration. Today, we’ve still got Oracle making predictions (along with many other forward-thinking tech firms), but it uses something a little more grounded. Artificial intelligence and its capacity to assess approaching events are pretty awe-inspiring even without the supernatural flair.
Many industries are looking to artificially intelligent software to help make predictions on everything from a customer’s buying decisions to which medical treatments will be most effective for a sick patient. Though we live in a world that still depends on the educated guesses of experts, it is becoming increasingly clear that next generation of prognosticators will be more silicon-based than carbon-based.
AI is a prediction technology at its very essence. With the ability to evaluate data exponentially faster than any person, machine learning programs can assess patterns, make connections, and test hypotheses in less time than it takes their human equivalent to pour a cup of coffee. Thanks to its advanced capabilities, AI’s predictions are already taking shape, with strong implications for retail, health care, and the way we understand the world around us.
Retailers are going all-in on predictive software, with an eye on better serving their customers’ needs even before they manifest themselves. While the oft-repeated story about Target’s marketing software revealing a teenage girl’s pregnancy based on her buying patterns turned out to be a myth, that kind of foresight is not completely out of the realm of possibility for retailers, given enormous leaps in machine learning capabilities.
In an IBM survey, 91 percent of retail executives said that AI is set to disrupt their industry. There’s no reason to believe they’re wrong, either. In a field that rewards efficiency and ingenuity, smart computing offers both in a rapidly improving package.
Amazon trademarked predictive stocking all the way back in 2014 (an eon in software development time). We haven’t yet seen it come to life, but Amazon technology like Dash buttons is part of the data-collecting process that will one day make it a reality. Today, you press a button to tell Amazon when you need detergent, razors, or cat food. Tomorrow, the data gleaned from those button presses will get those goods to you before you even realize you need them. Creepy? Maybe. But our AI-inflected future will be so full of this kind of interaction that those uneasy feelings are unlikely to last.
While the consumer front is undergoing its own AI revolution, there’s a parallel one happening in the health care field. While big-picture changes usually come more slowly in medicine due to entrenched hospitals and insurers and the necessary diligence required when dealing with a person’s well-being, the potential to improve and save ever more lives ought to make AI a priority for decision makers as it develops.
Advanced software has already been able to predict heart attacks and strokes better than traditional methods and create end-of-life treatment paths to better alleviate symptoms of long-suffering terminal patients. It’s not always pretty, but when AI can make life-or-death decisions more assured, there’s no question it’s worth pursuing.
Predictive AI can even stem health problems on the largest scale, allowing scientists to halt highly contagious diseases before they go global. A team of researchers from the University of Georgia, Massey University, and the University of California was able to use AI to model potential hot spots for outbreaks by monitoring the movements of likely disease vectors in bats. The next epidemic may be over before it ever takes root, thanks to a healthy dose of AI.
If there’s one field that stands to make a quantum leap forward with AI, it’s the millennia-old practice of weather forecasting. Ever since ancient Babylonians looked to the clouds to determine what was coming next, we’ve struggled to accurately and consistently make reliable weather predictions. Computer modeling represented a major step in the process, and AI looks poised to make another leap.
In 2016, researchers were able to identify complex atmospheric phenomena, formerly something that could only be accomplished by teams of human experts, through AI software. Artificial intelligence’s power here is in its ability to assess information at a scale far beyond what even the brightest scientists are capable of. We can now analyze patterns in air pressure by the petabyte, meaning weather-prediction models can lean on the entirety of weather-observation history to make predictions.
The same software currently used to identify images and language can do the same for weather, and while it might not yet be able to predict when hurricanes will arise, it can rapidly model and forecast scenarios for their growth and movement, potentially saving lives in the process.
These are just a few illustrative examples, but globally, we can expect massive changes in how we look at driving, law enforcement, and even human interaction itself, arising from the prediction power of AI. For any of us hoping to look into a machine learning crystal ball to see the future, that may be impossible for now. But the coming years are sure to usher in a new level of predictive power in spaces that we encounter every day as consumers. Whatever mystical powers the ancient oracles may have had, they definitely didn’t see this coming.
Bennat Berger is the cofounder and principal of Novel Property Ventures in New York City.