2021: The Year AI Goes Mainstream

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The pandemic has caused many trends to accelerate significantly during 2020 and some will remain with us for most of 2021. Of the things that the pandemic is accelerating, many of them have a lot to do with Artificial Intelligence. As we approach the end of the year, I thought it would be interesting to look ahead at the kind of changes to expect AI to influence as we continue to accelerate into what will be a vastly changed future. 

Video Conferencing

During 2020 Video conferencing products like Webex, Zoom, and Microsoft Teams became not only prevalent; they became how we did business.   These tools improved dramatically during the year with increases in the number of people in a meeting, how these people were displayed, advancements in virtual backgrounds, and improvements in video and sound quality. 

NVIDIA showcased what I think we’ll see happening more broadly as they realized that their GPU technology could significantly improve the quality of virtual calls.  Their Broadcast App and their Omniverse Machinima effort showcase what I think will be the future of video collaboration by using applied AI to enrich the experience. 

Now we’ll race to see how we can make the most realistic Augmented Reality solution for future meetings. AI will be used to improve the sound quality even further by removing localized noise from your audio stream and altering the image to make you look better (removing wrinkles, applying virtual makeup, and even virtual clothing) to help you look better more professional during the call. Your virtual office space will look organized and neat and reflect an image you can be proud of even if you are doing the call from a closet. You will always look like you are looking into the camera, and you convey the appearance you uniquely want to convey regardless of how you look. 

While I expect this will create real problems with virtual dating, it could be a godsend for business meetings and virtual classes. Coupled with this will be the ability to create and share 3D virtual objects that your team can collectively work on and manipulate.

Improved Digital Assistants

Several companies plan to bring digital assistants into the workspace. The company to initially watch is IBM, which has been working on converting their AI platform, Watson, to this task for some time. Rather than the somewhat limited capability we get from these assistants now, which mostly operate as a voice interface for search, these new assistants will do far more. You’ll be able to ask organizational questions, questions about your health coverage, questions about the firm’s policies, ask for advice on a decision that you’ve been asked to make, or even ask questions about company strategy and performance curated by your approved access.  

This capability will increasingly be available in your office phone system. These phones will change as offerings like the Cisco Webex Desk Hub will not only merge your Smartphone with your desk phone, but it will also ad intelligence to turn that blended offering into your desktop digital assistant.  This blended system will help you prioritize tasks, navigate a new (or old) office, and help you find the right person to complete an assignment. They’ll also provide more in-depth background in incoming calls, including whether the call is a likely Phishing attack, and better connect you to the overall corporate strategy. 

When fully implemented, the capability will be similar to the kind of services you might have received from a top secretary but far more comprehensive regarding data access, while likely less capable concerning office rumors. I expect that the rumor feature will arrive in some form (likely with a type of social media integration) in the next decade. 

Automated Food Preparation

One area that is likely to see a massive influx in automation and applied AI is food preparation. The Pandemic gutted the restaurant industry and accelerated the effort to automate food preparation significantly. We are already ordering on-line or using kiosks, which provides the potential for using robots to replace much of the food preparation staff, lowing the risk that a food establishment, or cafeteria, will become a super spreader location.  

AIs will not only be used to manage the customer experience, collect the order, and facilitate payment but to provide better advice on what to order, current specials in new and more attractive ways, and even clean up and sanitize the space after use. We should begin seeing the aggressive influx of robot food preparation trials before year-end, with potential service rollouts slated for late 2021-2025. 

Wrapping Up

2021 will likely be the year we see AI advance with the most visible implementations, improving how we remotely communicate and conference. We’ll see huge improvements in Digital Assistants with the most significant improvements in the office as these assistants approach old school secretaries’ competence. Finally, we’ll begin to see some considerable changes in automated food preparation and delivery. This last I should have touched on earlier, but both wheeled and flying drones are already starting large trials and should be more common by the end of 2021.  

This decade will likely be thought of as the real birth of practical AI and, by the end of it, we’ll be up to our armpits in robots, automation, and ever more capable digital assistants.  The pandemic may have been problematic for humans, but it has been a massive boon to robots and AIs and, I expect that much of what we do will be connected in some way, shape, or form by the end of the year to an Artificial Intelligence.



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