Transportation “can also become truly contactless if needed,” says James Peng, who is CEO of … [+] self-driving startup Pony.ai.
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The first few months of 2020 have radically reshaped the way we work and how the world gets things done. While the wide use of robotaxis or self-driving freight trucks isn’t yet in place, the Covid-19 pandemic has hurried the introduction of artificial intelligence across all industries. Whether through outbreak tracing or contactless customer pay interactions, the impact has been immediate, but it also provides a window into what’s to come. The second annual Forbes’ AI 50, which highlights the most promising U.S.-based artificial intelligence companies, features a group of founders who are already pondering what their space will look like in the future, though all agree that Covid-19 has permanently accelerated or altered the spread of AI.
“We have seen two years of digital transformation in the course of the last two months,” says Abnormal Security CEO Evan Reiser. As more parts of a company are forced to move online, Reiser expects to see AI being put to use to help businesses analyze the newly available data or to increase efficiency.
With artificial intelligence becoming ubiquitous in our daily lives, DeepMap CEO James Wu believes people will abandon the common misconception that AI is a threat to humanity. “We will see a shift in public sentiment from ‘AI is dangerous’ to ‘AI makes the world safer,’” he says. “AI will become associated with safety while human contact will become associated with danger.”
The latter sentiment is already true for food delivery apps. Grubhub, Uber Eats and DoorDash, among others, are offering contactless delivery options to minimize human-to-human interaction. Future applications that incorporate AI, Wu predicts, could include robots that deliver medicine or supplies. Pony.ai CEO James Feng echoes the sentiment, noting that “with autonomous vehicles, transportation itself is not only safer but can also become truly contactless if needed.”
In healthcare, finding a vaccine for Covid-19 has become the most pressing challenge. Even the most optimistic of timetables places the date for the release of a viable vaccine in the fall. Covid-19 itself is not a complex disease, says twoXAR CEO Andrew A. Radin, because it can be addressed with a vaccine, unlike other diseases like cancer. Nevertheless, the process to find a vaccine has proven to be time-consuming.
”The delays in getting a vaccine to market have everything to do with testing and manufacturing, not with the science of discovery itself,” Radin says. “AI has the potential to help bring efficiencies to clinical testing with everything from patient selection to predicting adverse events.”
About 50% of the workforce is now working from home, according to an analysis by a group of MIT researchers. The trend has prompted radical changes to our perception of remote work, most notably at Twitter, where CEO Jack Dorsey promised employees that they can work from home forever if they choose. “As working remotely becomes the new normal across the business community, AI tools that enable employees to get location-agnostic, real-time tech support are becoming even more critical,” says Moveworks CEO Bhavin Shah, pointing to the addition of bots to people’s daily lives as one possibility for the future of work.
Palmer Luckey, the Oculus VR creator who founded defense tech company Anduril Industries, veers from the crowd, predicting that Covid-19 will not meaningfully affect AI advances. However, he thinks the pandemic is expanding the use cases for AI by revealing “how many usually safe tasks become fraught under extreme circumstances.”
“In the future, expect businesses and governments to take a much broader view of the kinds of jobs for which autonomous systems might be necessary,” he says. “You only need to look at Iowa, which deployed the National Guard to protect their meat processing plants from the virus, to see how quickly that conversation has shifted.”
For UiPath CEO Daniel Dines, the coronavirus has revealed that automation has benefits that are “societal” in scope and that will be needed even after the crisis is over. “Across hospitals there will be huge backlogs caused by rescheduled appointments,” he says, as an example. “Citizens who need support can benefit from it faster, and remotely, if automation is put on the agenda of post-crisis planning.”
The same could be true across the workforce, says Gong chief product officer Eilon Reshef. Many types of jobs—from salespeople to lawyers—will have “specialized AI assistants” in the future, he says. Doctors, for example, can turn to their AI assistants to decipher x-rays and point out areas of concern. That increase in scope can also encompass the managing of supply chains and minimizing unnecessary travel through AI, suggests Icertis CTO Monish Darda.
“I think we are at the cusp of AI breaking through to becoming mission-critical in every aspect of our life,” he says.