AliBaba’s AI beats humans in Stanford reading test;  what does it mean for India?


With AI technologies performing human tasks better, be it in retrieving information or recognising patterns, Indian IT service firms need to take a leaf out of their Chinese counterparts’ books.

Several years ago when IBM’s Deep Blue beat Gary Kasparov, the best chess player in the world, everyone thought it was a one-off. It clearly wasn’t. Twenty-one years later, tech giant AliBaba has made it a viable option for AI to beat human beings.

Is it time for Indian IT Services companies to worry and rethink their strategies?

AliBaba’s AI engine beat students of Stanford University in a test with more than 100,000 questions. The software scored 82.44 percent and edged out the humans by 10 basis points.

Why is this significant?

China has clearly set an agenda to be a leader in AI technologies for 2030. Companies like Baidu and Tencent, from China, along with AliBaba have taken this seriously and are using vision, NLP and voice technologies to make mundane human tasks easier.

AI can be applied for learning and to find insights from information. Software is trained to recognise patterns and do tasks faster than human beings. The USA has 850,000 AI engineers.

Kamal Karanth, co-founder of Xpheno, says: “India has a handful of AI engineers. Most AI engineers are entrepreneurs here; we have to ramp up this stream of technology in to engineering.”

Top tier Indian IT companies employ close to 700,000 engineers. If AI can write simple code faster than your average IT graduate, then there will be an impact on IT service business models, where clients are demanding less of IT (old-style selling on premise infrastructure and applications) and want more value-driven software.

AI now a reality

Market hype and growing interest in artificial intelligence (AI) are pushing established software vendors to introduce AI into their product strategy, creating considerable confusion in the process, according to Gartner, Inc. Analysts predict that by 2020, AI technologies will be virtually pervasive in almost every new software product and service.

According to Gartner Inc, in January 2016, the term artificial intelligence was not in the top 100 search terms. By May 2017, the term ranked at No. 7, indicating the popularity of the topic and interest from Gartner clients in understanding how AI can and should be used as part of their digital business strategy. Gartner predicts that by 2020, AI will be a top five investment priority for more than 30 percent of CIOs.

“As AI accelerates up the Hype Cycle, many software providers are looking to stake their claim in the biggest gold rush in recent years,” said Jim Hare, Research Vice President at Gartner. “AI offers exciting possibilities, but unfortunately, most vendors are focused on the goal of simply building and marketing an AI-based product rather than first identifying needs, potential uses and the business value to customers.”

AI refers to systems that change behaviours without being explicitly programmed, based on data collected, usage analysis and other observations.

Together we can

While there is a widely held fear that AI will replace humans, the reality is that today's AI and learning technologies can and do greatly augment human capabilities. Machines can actually do some things better and faster than humans, once trained; the combination of machines and humans can accomplish more together than separately.

This is exactly what the Chinese have identified. They know the business case and the impact of AI on economics and social life. It is time India retrains its engineers and creates avenues to stay ahead in the technology race.

Only the State of Karnataka has bet on AI by setting up a centre of excellence. However, results are yet to come in and Indians are still clueless about the possible impact of the technology. Infosys has trained at least 170,000 engineers in design thinking. Even Wipro and TCS have been training their engineers around learning AI frameworks. In fact, TCS tied signed a JV with Rolls Royce recently to work on a whole range of technologies that can help with predictive and prescriptive diagnostics.

What the AliBaba and Stanford test means

According to the press release sent by AliBaba to Your Story, Alibaba’s iDST (Institute of Data Science of Technologies), the fundamental research arm on artificial intelligence under Alibaba Group, developed a deep learning model and that it had beaten human performance on Stanford’s reading comprehension test.

This is the first time that a machine has outperformed humans in a global reading test.

SQuAD, or Stanford Question Answering Dataset, is a large-scale reading comprehension dataset, comprising over 100,000 question-answer pairs based on more than 500 Wikipedia articles. Participating teams are required to build machine learning models that can provide answers to the questions in the dataset.

It is perceived as the world’s top machine reading comprehension test and attracts universities and institutes ranging from Google, Facebook, IBM, Microsoft to Carnegie Mellon University, Stanford University and Allen Research Institute.

The deep neural network model developed by Alibaba generated results of score 82.44 in Exact Match – providing exact answers to questions - beating the score by humans (82.304), marking the first time that a machine performed better than humans in reading comprehension.

The model, which leverages the innovative Hierarchical Attention Network that reads from paragraphs to sentences to words in order to locate the precise phases with potential answers, is seen to have great commercial values.

The underlying technology has been applied in Alibaba’s Global Shopping Festival over the years, with machines answering huge inbound inquiries during the big sales period.


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