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Artificial intelligence is the new electricity?

By Daniel Eckert, Managing Director, Emerging Technology, PwC

This feature was produced by Pricewaterhouse Coopers, and does not reflect the opinions or point of view of Vox Media or Vox Creative. Vox Media editorial staff was not involved in the creation or production of this content.

"AI is the new electricity," said Andrew Ng, Associate Professor of AI at Stanford University, at a recent conference on artificial intelligence. AI is the new electricity? Huh? Wait a minute.

One could argue that electricity is one of humanity's greatest inventions. It ranks right up there with the wheel, the printing press, the combustion engine, and the telephone. The use of electricity has changed our lives to such an extent that life without it would be almost unthinkable. It is so fundamental to our lives that it is almost invisible.

My team and I reviewed the topic postmortem and below are some of the key similarities between electricity and AI that we discussed:


You plug it in—and it works

Electricity: The easiest integration model ever—assuming you have the right adaptor.

AI: Very similar to the early years of electricity—you needed to buy into the ecosystem or your system will not be compatible. However, this is quickly changing as an integration fabric is emerging that is enabling disparate systems to quickly integrate.


You can't imagine living without it

Electricity: Quick: think of 10 things you used electricity for in the last 10 minutes. Enough said.

AI: Today, contextual awareness is creeping into our phones, and most people don't even know it. The AI magic we see in image recognition, voice translation and predictive modeling is increasing every month.


The "hockey stick" ADOPTION model

Electricity: The lead up to commercial viability took over 100 years—but 1900-1920 was when things quickly transformed modern society.

AI: Academics and researchers have been discussing AI since the 1950s. The commercialization of AI-like services has already started—and it's only a matter of time before "AI powered" will be the new "Electric" motor, "Digital" widget, or "Internet-enabled" offering. Expect the next 10-20 years to be the gold rush of our generation.


New businesses popped up overnight

Electricity: Factories to create electricity, factories to create light bulbs and factories to create appliances were quickly established.

AI: API orchestrators, facial recognition, voice and language translation, and legacy enterprises selling their data sets to feed algorithmic engines that drive new service offerings.


It changes the talent pool

Electricity: Just as electricity changed the business model, it required new skills, which created new jobs. As people started doing new things in new ways, the old ways and the skills required to support them were no longer necessary.

AI: AI's impact will create transformational technologies that will drive skill transformation over the next 20 to 30 years. As an example, when you add AI to machines, you get smart robots—and these robots will replace many service types of jobs in the future. As AI-like services mature, there will be a period when supply and demand will be out of balance and jobs will be affected. At the same time, new types of jobs will emerge. Humans will be required in jobs where we can add value—€”emotionally or intellectually—not just perform routine and repetitive tasks.


The cost to produce the service is reduced over time

Electricity: In the early 1900s, electricity cost $4.50 per kilowatt hour. It continued to fall into the 1920s when it stabilized in the $0.20 range (price-adjusted for inflation). Since the 1930s, the price of a kilowatt hour has remained relatively flat.

AI: The cost to build a large AI platform and ecosystem (taking into account compute, storage, power, and software) can easily run into the millions of dollars. However, as this technology continues to mature, costs continue to drop—and in the next 10 to 20 years, we should see the price adhere towards a utility model and flatten out. We expect a tiered pricing model to be introduced: a free (or freemium model) for simple activities and a premium model for discrete, business differentiating services.


It's the same—but different

Flying deep into a search engine black hole—something else jumped out. When electricity started to make its way into the home, it transitioned from a noun to an adjective. Some examples: electric motor, electric drill, electric iron, electric bicycle. I realized that this is a common way for new technology to be embedded in the human vernacular. In the 1980s it was computerized, in the 2010s it was digital. It won't be long before we start seeing intelligent or AI-powered used in the same way.

Just as electricity is fundamental to the way we live, in the not so distant future, it is not hard to see how AI will become the new electricity—embedded or supporting just about every aspect of our life.

Follow @deckert on Twitter.

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This feature was produced by Pricewaterhouse Coopers, and does not reflect the opinions or point of view of Vox Media or Vox Creative. Vox Media editorial staff was not involved in the creation or production of this content.

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