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Can AI solve information overload?

John Brandon | Jan. 4, 2016
In some ways, artificial intelligence – in the form of automated features within popular applications – is already helping us combat info-glut. Those small steps are leading inevitably to a future in which we’ll all rely on AI for daily assistance with mundane tasks.

“These solutions don't have to be orders of magnitude better than us at what they do to be useful,” says Stowe Boyd, a managing director for research at Gigaom. “In fact, a tool that does something no better than me but frees me from doing it – like a concierge bot that would make flight and hotel arrangements for me – would be worth a great deal.” 

Boyd says AI could eventually help with decisions in IT that are notoriously difficult for humans because of our biases and, ironically, our digital overload. One example is in evaluating the skillset for a potential hire or even promoting someone based on analytics rather than a hunch. 

There’s a real-world example of this, he says. Direct marketing company Harte-Hanks uses an AI program called Cornerstone that picks the best call-center candidates. The company found new hires answered calls 15 percent faster than those hired through the normal recruiting method. 

Of course, not everyone agrees that AI is capable of answering our email just yet. Dan Tochinni is a noted AI expert who worked at Google on the AdSense program and is now developing The Grid, which uses AI to build a Website automatically. 

“My experience with higher level decision making, even prioritizing email, is that it is a non-trivial machine learning problem which will likely take years to get right. We probably have a decade before we do, at which point deciding what to automate,” he says. 

That could lead to a curious predicament. In the future, as machine learning advances and more AI is used to help with decisions, Tochinni argues that people might respond by purposefully turning off those features – in the car and on their phones – and rely on intuition. As many AI experts suggest, the best scenario is to combine machine learning with human insight. An AI system might make mundane decisions (which coffee to buy) but not complex decisions. 

Virtual digital assistants 

In case you haven’t clicked on the small circle to the lower-left of the taskbar in Windows 10, that’s a new virtual assistant named Cortana. (She comes from the Halo video game franchise.) There are some powerful AI routines at work that can help you order an Uber car, set a reminder for later in the day, track a FedEx package, and provide details about meeting participants culled from LinkedIn. From an AI standpoint, Cortana learns which features you use most often. For example, if you usually click on meeting reminders and open your calendar, you’ll see more of them. When Cortana sees an upcoming trip, she will download maps of the area and find exchange rates. 


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