The Power of Technology


In the near future, you will be able to organise, plan your life, and take important decisions by simply speaking into your phone. How? Google has the answers. Ayodeji Rotinwa reports

Time difference, like many others, is a science that’s hard to master.

Basically, it’s simple mathematics but that’s hard too, especially when you’ve been travelling endless hours, subject to questionable airline food and a passenger – neighbour who’s disturbing your rest, asking for movie recommendations.

I was visiting Nairobi, attending Google’s ‘Magic in the Machine’, a live demo presentation event about the company’s giant strides in artificial intelligence, its working tool: machine learning; in making our lives easier, smarter, and more convenient.

It was a tightly packed trip that lasted 48 hours in a city that was very chilly, in a hotel room that no windows and allowance for fresh air. I soon developed a chest infection, a wheezy cough and cold and a burning fever.

I was vaguely aware that my return flight to Lagos was at the crack of dawn. 7am. But I wasn’t sure. 7am Nigerian time or Kenyan time? Kenya is two hours ahead. I was too preoccupied with getting drugs for my fever to check for sure. The night before my flight, I would later open Google Now and come across a notification. The search service had parsed through my email, presenting my flight information as a notification. It highlighted and reminded me of my correct flight time per my location and pointed out a detail I had completely missed: my flight terminal.

I hadn’t realised that the Jomo Kenyatta Airport had different terminals (too used to Murtala Mohammed International) and I would have likely ended up at the wrong one had I not seen that notification.

Google Now had delivered two important pieces of information: one I wasn’t certain of previously and one I didn’t know I needed, at a time when my physical discernment was impaired through being sick.

How did the application do this? Artificial Intelligence via machine learning, Google’s preferred approach to developing the former.
“Artificial intelligence would be the ultimate version of Google. The ultimate search engine that would understand everything on the Web. It would understand exactly what you wanted, and it would give you the right thing. We’re nowhere near doing that now. However, we can get incrementally closer to that, and that is basically what we work on,” Larry Page, cofounder of Google said in 2000.

Seventeen years later, the search engine has brought us all significantly closer to a smarter world in ways we might not even recognize.
Have you ever typed in search term and before you finish, it is completed for you? Likely, yes. When you enter a certain location repeatedly as a destination on Google Maps, have you ever seen a suggestion that asks you to save as Home or Work, the software rightly estimating that a destination you go to that often would be so familiar. Likely, yes. When you shop online or search for certain times over a period of time, have you noticed you start to see advertisements, products pitching those things to you? If you use Google Now you start to see news about said search terms in your feed.

Artificial Intelligence is the science of making things smart, as clearly illustrated above. Machine Learning, the tool which the former uses, is teaching a computer to recognize patterns by example such as repeated Maps destinations, similar searches of similar things.
In Nairobi, before the fever got me, I got a sense of just how smart the future might be. The Google team consisting ofmachine learning expert and principal scientist at Google, Blaise Aguera y Arcas and Laura Scott, a communications manager, delivered a live demonstration and talk over the company’s latest advancements in machine learning. Two of the demonstrated applications were experimental: the AI Duet, a piano that responds to you and the Quick Draw a doodle recognition game that predicts what you’re trying to draw. It was immediately apparent that the latter could be a hit in a children’s art class and a great way to introduce them to technology.

The most striking advancement was the Google Assistant. (you can download this via the Play Store on Android or Apple Store for iPhone) Think of every science fiction film you have watched where actors talked to robots and they talked back. They could tell the weather, take instruction to place calls, they might even recommend a cocktail pairing with your dinner.

With the Google Assistant, fiction has become real life.

The virtual companion, an app in your phone brought to life by your voice can carry on a natural conversation. Scott had a ‘chat’ with the app about when her next flight was, what airline she was flying and what terminal she was supposed to be at.
Eventually, machine learning will do more than just making sure you don’t pay an extra $100 for a new flight ticket.

According to Martian Herald, an online directory on unusual facts, machine learning will play a huge role in our finances, health, and quite frankly, help preserve our lives. Machine learning software will help protect consumers from fraud by spotting changes in spending, credit card use. Anything unusual, and you might receive alarms in your inbox. There’s special software in development that can help detect heart attacks before they occur. There are intelligent devices that can help distinguish between life-saving and fake drugs. According to the World Health Organization, 10 – 25% of medicine in developing countries is counterfeit. In 2015, the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) impounded 270 million worth of fake drugs. News reports of Nigerians dying due to expired or fake drugs are all too familiar. There’s software that also tracks changes in health records and can help doctors diagnose patients more efficiently.

In many Nigerian hospitals, every ailment is interpreted as Malaria. This stubborn misdiagnosis kills.

There’s machine learning software in the works too that may help us prepare better for adverse weather conditions like the flooding experienced across the country recently. Sure, it is not a substitute for availability of drainages or competent urban planning but if you knew a disturbing amount of rain was on its way, you could act with that information and get all your belongings and loved ones out of harm’s way.

It is comforting to know one company – Google – has literally made its business to think along these lines, to make all our lives: simpler, smarter, safer and more secure.
Machine Learning is definitely a science I will be studying.