It's 1890. You own a small insurance company that sells accident protection and marine policies. Your business is growing quickly but faces one key challenge: There's no electric light. Your productivity rises and sets with the sun. (Gas lamps are available, but they're dangerous, messy, and not that bright.)
Then you get word of a new set of interlocking technologies that promises to transform daily life. It all begins with Thomas Edison's light bulb and the electric current that turns it on, courtesy of a power utility's centrally located generator in New York City. Electricity quickly changes everything. You can work longer hours and process more policies, which allows you to hire more people.
Electricity also flows into factories, soon powering machinery along vast assembly lines and allowing for the mass production of cars (which opens up a whole new insurance market for you). It changes things at home, too: Electricity empowers women, who, before long, come to rely on electric clothes washers and coffee percolators. In time, electricity will underpin countless once-unthinkable inventions: radio, refrigeration, television, computers.
It's 2017. You own a small insurance company, your business is growing quickly, and you have a chance to take advantage of the biggest transformative technology since electricity: artificial intelligence.
You've experienced narrow forms of A.I.: anti-lock braking systems, email spam filters, weather apps. All only hint at the coming new age of human-machine interaction, in which A.I. will perform any intellectual task just as a human would.
Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, IBM, Microsoft, and Baidu are all building the foundations of A.I., but hundreds of startups are focused on ancillary tools (just as, 125 years ago, many companies made wooden poles, copper wire, and lamp fixtures). Nvidia is building computer chips that allow machines to react to their surroundings in real time. Fanuc is working on an unsupervised learning system, so A.I.-powered robots can learn skills on their own. Tesla is developing A.I. infrastructure for autonomous vehicles, which includes new kinds of maps and decision-making software. And Clarifai is building software that will automatically tag, organize, and search content.
If you're an insurer today, you'll need to plan for self-driving cars that don't get into accidents. And you'll need to create policies for companies that want protection against algorithms that run amok. Like electricity, A.I. will usher in huge changes for every single industry. Over the next two decades, you'll encounter key bosses who aren't human.
And changing industries will require new skills:
A.I. will enable the production of significantly more food in much smaller spaces. Collaborative robots will decide what to plant, harvest the fruits and vegetables,
and then transport them to autonomous vehicles that will drive the produce to factories for processing. We'll need fewer field laborers--but more horticulturists and managers who are cross-trained in computer science.
The medical center of the future will be remote. There--assisted by A.I., nanobots, and health data--doctors who know robotics will monitor and treat us before we get really sick, and with far fewer in-person office visits.
Businesses will eventually outsource key decisions and organizational management to algorithms. Many humans will find themselves managed by machines for performance assessments, raises, and conflict resolution. To oversee it, we'll need companies--and people--that understand data, A.I., and traditional human resources.
Someday, you'll look back and realize that A.I. is our generation's electricity. And that you were there, at the start, witnessing A.I.'s illumination of the future of your business and our world.