Top 20 AI trends to watch out for in 2021 and beyond

The number and variety of AI applications keep increasing and researchers and scientists are continuously finding unique and creative ways to get the most out of smart algorithms.

To find a way out of the current crisis induced by the COVID-19 pandemic, economic strategy and industrial policy – on national as well as global level – should focus on creating a strong, technology-powered competitive edge. Artificial intelligence and machine learning are developing at unprecedented speed, disrupting sectors across industries and accelerating recovery in many industries. In fact, estimates show that 80 per cent of technologies developed in the next couple of years will be based on smart algorithms and machine learning. The number and variety of AI applications keep increasing, while researchers and scientists are continuously finding new ways to use them. We’ve compiled a list of the coolest and most impressive applications of AI that can help us on our road to recovery.

1. Intelligent Process Automation (IPA): Hyperautomation

From self-driving cars to automated pickup and order services in retail, companies have been increasingly turning to intelligent solutions to improve existing processes. But now there’s another step in leveraging cutting-edge technologies: Intelligent Process Automation (IPA). This is the umbrella term for technologies that manage, automate and integrate digital processes. IPA consists of Digital Process Automation (DPA), Robotic Process Automation (RPA) and Artificial Intelligence (AI). Digital process automation (DPI) enables managing data flow, making it easier to recognise areas that need improvement. By analysing collected data, AI delivers actionable information to facilitate drawing decisions from increasingly intelligent choices. And while data-driven decision making is essential for conducting businesses that operate in digital ecosystems, employing RPA brings significant time- and cost-efficiency to the table. According to McKinsey, companies that have been experimenting with IPA have managed to automate between 50 and 70 per cent of processes, which translates to between 20 and 35 per cent annual run-rate cost efficiencies. That is achieved through optimisation of the existing RPI and humans coordinating their tasks. Also, IPA can help determine where the human labour force is most valued, and which tasks can be automated and carried out by robots. A good example of successful API automation is Bancolombia, one of the largest banking groups in Latin America. The group managed to reduce operational risk by 28 per cent, elevate customer satisfaction by 59 per cent, and increase overall efficiency by eliminating manual tasks.

2. Edge AI-based chips power the future

Gargantuan data sets and endless lists of applications of smart algorithms and machine learning have fuelled the development of AI chips. The latest estimates show that the value of the global chip set sector is set to reach $57.8 billion by 2026, and advancing AI-powered hardware with improved performance and real-time responsiveness will accelerate the expansion of automation. AI-powered applications of the future must be prepared to process a torrent of data in real time coming from various sources. And Edge AI is one of the biggest trends today. These chips run on the actual device itself, instead of on a remote server. This offers numerous benefits, from handling vast amounts of data to better data safety.

3. Cyber defense: AI can help

Greater connectedness has also led to considerably increased vulnerability to cyber attacks. But AI- and machine-based cyber defense systems are especially efficient in detecting attempts to access databases or any unknown smart system’s intrusion. According to the recent market research report ‘Artificial Intelligence (AI) in Cybersecurity Market’, the global AI in the cybersecurity market is expected to reach $46.3 billion by 2027, growing at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 23.6 per cent. Cybercriminals are always trying to find new ways to make sure their malware cannot be detected by intelligent security systems. But luckily, intelligent tools can be trained to observe a regular computer user’s behaviour on a daily basis so that any a-typical behaviour (such as from malware intrusion) can immediately be picked up. Poppy Gustafsson, co-CEO of Darktrace, a leading cybersecurity company that uses machine learning to detect threats, explains the role of AI in data protection. “What AI enables us to do is to respond in an intelligent way, understanding the relevance and consequences of a breach or a change of behaviour, and in real time develop a proportionate response.”

4. Intelligent virtual assistants mimic human conversations

A recent ResearchandMarkets report shows that the global conversational AI market is expected to increase from $48 in 2020, growing at a compound annual growth rate of 21.8 per cent, reaching $13.9 billion by 2025. We know conversational AI from the chatbots companies use to improve their customers’ experience and provide better support. Chatbot technology relies on natural language processing (NLP) to enable the mimicking of human conversation. Intelligent chatbots employed in customer service can lead to cost reductions of up to 90 per cent, saving businesses millions. Where conversational AI proves valuable is its ability to provide highly personalised communication. It can be trained to be multilingual and even provide empathetic support. Intelligent conversational chatbots can, for instance, help seniors cope with loneliness. Osmar Zaïane, an artificial intelligence expert at the University of Alberta, for instance, lead a project in which the goal was to design a chatbot that “can simulate dynamic conversation and provide social fulfilment for elders experiencing loneliness”. “Our population is ageing. People live longer. We don’t have enough nursing homes for everybody and not everyone wants to go to nursing homes,” Zaïane points out. “Often they lose their partner in life, so they live at home, alone, and their families are far away. There’s a significant impact with loneliness on their mental health and also their physical health.”

5. AI-powered predictive big data analytics

The best artificial intelligence algorithms and analysis software systems use machine learning solutions. This enables them to transform data into actionable information and create self-service data visualisation dashboards as well as automation-ready features to maximise revenue and operational efficiency. Allowing AI technology to assist humans with data analysis can lead to better insights for the company and speed up decision-making. AI-powered data analysis aims to improve the efficiency and productivity of enterprises, thereby increasing brand loyalty, driving revenue and eliminating the need for manual data processing. Intelligent analytics are proving increasingly important, as they deliver customised, accessible and relevant business insights that help companies reach their most critical goals.

6. Legal AI technology: attorneys will (not) become obsolete

Smart algorithms are slowly but surely also gaining traction in the legal sector. This development isn’t without concerns, mind you. One of the major ones being whether attorneys and legal experts will become obsolete. The answer is – thankfully – a resounding ‘no’. The very role of an attorney is so inherently complex, requiring creativity for developing strategies and persuasion based on the law, that it cannot simply be reduced to an AI-based program. However, this doesn’t mean that the legal sector won’t be altered. Studies show that “AI’s accuracy outperforms that of humans in selecting relevant sources in document review”. Mistakes caused by human error are common due to the length and complexity of legal documents and contracts. AI software can most certainly play a pivotal role in shortening “the time attorneys spend redlining contracts and increase the accuracy of the review”. In fact, research by doctoral candidate Beverly Rich suggests that “a smaller number of firms – mostly those with a high volume of routinized contracts – use more advanced software with AI capabilities”, and “have generally seen an increase in productivity and efficiency in their contracting. The use of AI contracting software has the potential to improve how all firms contract – and it will do so in three ways: by changing the tools firms use to contract, influencing the content of contracts, and affecting the processes by which firms contract.”

This, however, doesn’t mean that there won’t be AI-powered robot lawyers. In fact, the world’s first robot lawyer DoNoPay could be the harbinger of the future of law. This first robot lawyer may now only perform simple tasks – like helping people with parking tickets – but in the future, robot lawyers may become much more versatile and even assist people who can’t afford human attorneys. “What we try to do is give the ordinary people the same power in the legal system as large companies,” says Josh Browder, the creator of DoNotPay.

7. The internet of Behaviours (IoB)

The Internet of behaviours (IoB) is a newly recognised trend in our rapidly digitalising and connected world. Location tracking devices, facial recognition tech, and the ever increasing usage of smart devices are generating unprecedented amounts of data. Data which can be later used to influence human behaviour. “The IoB refers to a process by which user-driven data is analysed through a behavioural psychology perspective, with the results of that analysis then informing new approaches to how to design the User Experience (UX), Search Experience Optimisation (SXO), final products and services offered by companies, and how to market them” – reads a section on the B2B-company Bocasay website. A simple example of the Internet of Behaviour would be organisations leveraging data via facial recognition or computer vision to determine if citizens or employees comply with rules and regulations during the pandemic. ZDNet reports that “by 2025, half the world’s population will be subject to an IoB commercial or government program” and notes that “IoB tracking is already in place” even while privacy laws try to catch up.

8. AI is slowly taking over HR departments

The potential of artificial intelligence has brought significant transformation to the field of talent acquisition. Smart algorithms can be used to build virtual recruitment tools to screen thousands of job applications, saving recruiters valuable time and helping them make informed decisions by providing unprecedented analysis and evaluation power. But AI can provide employees with valuable assistance as well. A recent IBM report reveals that the “analytical approach is for HR to be much more knowledgeable about their organisation. This is particularly important when it comes to AI applications because they often work across functional areas to serve employees. For example, assignments overseas can now integrate with career development, so that relevant new role opportunities are flagged directly to suitable employees.”

9. AI-based platforms enable remote work

The pandemic has led to tremendous changes in the way we work. Maintaining network security when employees use remote devices, continuing to perform tasks and managing progress are all challenges we need to deal with when working remotely. Luckily, AI can help us with these challenges and ensure we can collaborate effectively – even when teleworking. AI can, for instance, provide contextual insights that are not normally available in face-to-face meetings. Other advantages or AI-based collaboration tools include automating service processes and setting up different distributed collaboration solutions. During virtual meetings, AI tools can automatically capture and present related information or resources, such as web links, videos and documents, improving processes, saving time and increasing productivity. Paul Clough, head of data science at Peak Indicators, believes that “it is possible for people to continue building AI solutions in a remote and distributed manner (assuming their internet connection holds up) in ways that were similar to going into the office”., for instance, enables you “to automatically adjust and optimise each slide in a presentation while you add content”.

10. Augmented Intelligence

Augmented intelligence, also known as intelligence amplification (IA), is AI with a twist that makes all the difference. Artificial intelligence is built in such a way that can work and react like humans, while augmented intelligence uses machines in ways that they enhance the capabilities of human workers. Basically, augmented intelligence involves people and machines working together to use their strengths to achieve increased business value, basically. The main goal of augmented intelligence is to empower humans to perform better. Platforms that provide augmented intelligence can collect all types of data, both structured and unstructured, from many sources in decentralised and isolated systems, and they present this data in a way that allows human workers to fully understand each customer. The insights are more significant and more profound than those provided by the ‘ordinary AI’.  As a result, workers can gain a better understanding of what’s happening in the sector, what may affect their customers, and the opportunities or threats that may arise. This wealth of information combined with human intelligence is what makes this technology so powerful.

11. Medical AI: should we trust smart algorithms with our health?

Artificial intelligence can benefit the healthcare industry, too, and will transform the ways we work in the medical field. Medical AI enables people to receive safer, more effective care, and makes it easier to prevent and treat diseases. Traditionally, the manual analysis of health records, medical literature, and historical trends is very time-consuming. These tasks have proven to be very suitable for AI tools. Dr. Theodoros Zanos, PhD, head of the Neural and Data Science Lab and assistant professor at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research at New Hyde Park, N.Y.-based Northwell Health, believes that AI can help with accurate and early diagnoses early in the disease cycle. AI can also simplify certain procedures, reduce unnecessary examinations and expenses, and give doctors more time to focus on interactions with patients. Dr. Zanos is optimistic about AI in healthcare. “Using AI to find data patterns that are hard for humans to detect can also provide new insights and a deeper understanding of certain diseases and their mechanism of progression. Beyond diagnosis, it will enable evidence-based optimisation and personalisation of treatments.”

12. AI-powered banking

Artificial intelligence is also increasingly being used in the banking and insurance industry. Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase, for instance, use AI to simplify and enhance their customer service. Deploying AI can help to promote the development of mobile banking and enable customers 24/7 access to banking services. AI can also help financial institutions make better informed, data driven risk management and loan decisions. A study by PwC indicates that over 50 per cent of decision-makers and executives are making substantial investments in AI, while 72 per cent believe AI will offer a business advantage. The implementation of artificial intelligence in the wealth sector provides significant savings that are expected to reach $447 billion by 2023. And while AI financial advisors are a great concept and can help you with your portfolio management, when it comes to diagnosing major financial problems or creating viable financial plans, humans still outperform AI. “Where a human financial advisor really thrives is addressing the other 90% of your financial life,” says Meg Bartelt of Flow Financial Planning. “The big questions like how to buy a house, a car, quit your job and start your own business, or have a baby in the next five or 10 years,” are better left in the capable hands of a human advisor.

13. The rise of AI-powered sexbots

The global sex tech industry is booming, with its market size expected to reach a value of $52.7 billion by 2026. The industry is advancing rapidly as companies increasingly apply robotics and artificial intelligence to sexbots. Building bridges to cross the divide between the physical and the digital, remote intimacy technology, telematics and sex robots are becoming the companions of choice for (sex) partners separated by distance. In addition, industry experts are exploring new areas of immersive sexual content and virtual reality pornography. The hope is that the innovative and unique features of sex dolls or sex robots with built-in AI may increase intimate connectivity. In the future, besides physical interaction, sexbot features will also include intellectual stimulation – and who doesn’t like an intelligent companion, robotic or otherwise. Take Harmony, for instance, the company that manufactures lifelike robotic heads that attach onto human-like silicon bodies, creating robotic lady companions that can – besides merely ‘being sexy’ – even engage in conversation. She is witty, and can recall facts from previous conversations which makes her pretty smart. What’s not to like?

14. The rise and rise of AI-driven education

More than 1.2 billion students in 186 countries are affected by the current school closures. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, most educational institutions have switched to online learning to be able to maintain social distancing, while ensuring that the learning and teaching process remains largely uninterrupted. The sudden shift away from classrooms to online learning has left many wondering how this would impact education systems around the world. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, edtech had already been seeing an uptick in popularity in recent years. This is especially evident from the growth and adoption of AI-powered education technology. In fact, the global AI in education market is set to reach a value of $25.7 billion in 2030, growing at a 32.9 per cent compound annual growth rate. A recently-released report from the Consortium for School Networking highlights the potential of AI in education. It can help educators to automate tasks, afford teachers the time to construct more meaningful face-to-face learning opportunities, and enable intelligent and personalised tutoring systems. “For example, consider the AI in Microsoft Office that might recommend a PowerPoint layout, serve as a Presenter Coach, suggest a formula in an Excel spreadsheet, or allow a student to dictate and translate a paragraph.” One example is CENTURY, a platform that was recently launched at a group of public schools in Lebanon. It uses AI technology to provide personalised learning content and offers educators real-time insights and analytics. Research shows that the platform helps increase a student’s understanding of a topic by 30 per cent. We can expect to see more and more schools adopting intelligent learning platforms like these in the near future.

15. Predictive intelligence improves the customer experience

Businesses may use predictive analytics to forecast the needs of customers in a definitive way, even when the customer has made up his mind. Predictive analytics could, for instance, provide early signs of any shift in consumer behaviour. In addition, predictive technologies allow marketers to be proactive, inspire them to optimise their messaging to fit the customers’ needs and service consumers effectively. For instance, furniture retailer Room & Board managed to improve their bottom line and reach customers more effectively by implementing Salesforce’s Marketing Cloud technology. The tool was used to analyse customer traffic data and with the predictive analytics feature the retailer was able “to suggest additional purchases to customers in real time” The result was rather impressive as the company managed to accomplish a whopping 2900 per cent return on investment (ROI).

16. Intelligent algorithms add more flavour to the food & beverage industry

The COVID-19 crisis accelerates the pace of adoption of robotics and AI in the food & beverage industry. These intelligent systems help track and eliminate waste supply chains, while smart software helps monitor prices, inventory ordering, and stock shelves. But AI can do much – much – more than that. In fact, the Geneva-based firm Firmenich Flavors, the world’s largest privately-owned perfume and taste company, has managed to create the world’s first AI-developed flavour. This was possible through the company’s collaboration with Microsoft. Microsoft’s Azure cloud technologies “enabled us to achieve this accomplishment, thanks to its enormous calculation potential”, notes VP of Firmenich’s d-lab, Philippe Glenat. “The exciting addition of AI allows us to offer more personalised consumer experiences, better leverage different raw materials and explore new creative leads,” explains Firmenich Flavors president Emmanuel Butstraen. “Taking into account specific product parameters such as organic certified ingredients or specific regulatory requirements, the technology enhances our Flavorists’ capability to create superior taste solutions and accelerate our product development,” he adds.

17. AI helps improve wildlife conservation

As a result of the ivory trade, the African forest elephant population has dropped by a staggering 65 per cent over the last decade, while the rhinoceros population has suffered an even greater blow. The fact that there are only 30,000 rhinos left in the wild is a devastating confirmation of the gravity of the situation. If poaching continues, many more animal species will face extinction. To give wildlife a fighting chance, conservationists are increasingly making use of AI “to gather the information they need to predict the behaviour of the wildlife they seek to protect as well as to track poachers and anticipate their next moves”. The University of Southern California Center for Artificial Intelligence in Society teamed up with the National Science Foundation and the Army Research Office, to develop an AI-based tool to help fight poaching. Dubbed “Protection Assistant for Wildlife Security” or PAWS, the app uses mathematical and computer models to analyse evidence of poaching and data gathered from  previous patrols. 

18. AI adds new textures to the fashion industry

Innovations incorporating tech like AI and machine learning are changing the fashion industry as well. In fact, the survival of fashion retailers largely depends on AI. Did you know that as much as 44 per cent of those who haven’t adopted AI are actually facing bankruptcy? Global spending on intelligent solutions in the fashion industry is expected to reach $7.3 billion by 2022 – indicating that fashion brands have recognised that AI can be a powerful ally when it comes to designing and selling apparel that fits customers’ needs and requirements. Berlin-based fashion platform Zalando, for instance, leverages AI when designing fashion “based on the customer’s preferred colours, textures, and other style preferences”. Before adopting AI, however, brands should adopt digitalisation first. “Personalisation is most definitely a way to exceed the expectation of today’s shopper. How this is achieved, however, is more about digital evolution than AI revolution,” points out Olga Kotsur, co-founder and chief executive of digital retail technology company Mercaux. “Retailers can be blinded by the hype of the AI revolution without addressing the foundations of in-store digitalisation that service basic customer needs, such as alternative recommendations. The real challenge for retailers is simply knowing where to begin. That’s why we closely advise our customers on their transformation journey, so AI styling is considered for deployment when the store, and crucially the staff, is ready to use it.”

19. Artificial intelligence can assist in the early diagnosis of autism

According to a new study from Northwestern University, Ben Gurion University, Harvard University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a new precision medicine approach enhanced by artificial intelligence has laid the basis for a novel biomedical screening and intervention tool for a subtype of autism. It is believed that this new strategy is the first of its kind in precision medicine. “This discovery was like finding a needle in a haystack, as there are thousands of variants in hundreds of genes thought to underlie autism, each of which is mutated in less than 1 per cent of families with the disorder. We built a complex map, and then needed to develop a magnifier to zoom in,” explains Yuan Luo, chief AI officer at the Northwestern University Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute and the Institute of Augmented Intelligence in Medicine, as well as a member of the McCormick School of Engineering. To build the magnifier, the research team first  identified clusters of gene exons, parts of genes that contain coding for a specific protein. “The map and magnifier approach showcases a generalisable way of using multiple data modalities for subtyping autism and it holds the potential for many other genetically complex diseases to inform targeted clinical trials,” concludes Luo.

20. AI dietitians can help map the presence of Type 1 diabetes antibodies

The use of  AI  in the treatment of diabetes is a growing trend. IBM and the non-profit JDRF (formerly known as the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation), have launched a predictive AI tool that can help map the presence of Type 1 diabetes antibodies in the blood. This would help understand how and when the condition could develop. Jianying Hu, IBM fellow and global science leader of AI for healthcare at IBM Research, explains “that the AI was fed data from more than 22,000 people from the United States, Sweden and Finland. One of the biggest potentials of this kind of work in building machine learning models for Type 1 diabetes is to be able to better identify who to monitor and how often to monitor them,” says Hu, whose team worked on this project with JDRF for more than a year. “Right now even the little we know, these antibodies are pervasive in the progression of Type 1 diabetes, but nobody knows who is more susceptible in developing them and when.” This AI does not represent a definitive screening strategy, but it shows the road towards the future where machine learning software might be used for quicker, life-saving diagnosis of Type 1 diabetes.

Smart algorithms offer future prospects

The COVID-19 pandemic has crippled the world’s economies and many sectors are struggling for survival. There are innovative ways to help us on the road to recovery, but businesses and institutions need to focus on creating a strong, technology-powered competitive edge. AI-powered applications are growing exponentially, in number as well as in scope, with researchers and scientists continuously finding new ways to use AI to design high-value products and services. Artificial intelligence is impacting the future of every single industry and every single human being. It has been the driver of technologies like robotics, big data, and the IoT, and will likely continue to act as a technological innovator in the future.

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