Dear Commons Community,
The New York Times ran two articles in the past three days describing the battle that is evolving among technology companies for dominance of artificial intelligence (A.I.) and big data applications. The articles suggest that fueled by cloud computing, companies like Google, IBM, Amazon, and Microsoft have entered into a new phase of competition for control of A.I. applications. One article describes the battle:
“Many of the tech industry’s biggest companies, like Amazon, Google, IBM and Microsoft, are jockeying to become the go-to company for A.I. In the industry’s lingo, the companies are engaged in a “platform war.”
A platform, in technology, is essentially a piece of software that other companies build on and that consumers cannot do without. Become the platform and huge profits will follow. Microsoft dominated personal computers because its Windows software became the center of the consumer software world. Google has come to dominate the Internet through its ubiquitous search bar.
If true believers in A.I. are correct that this long-promised technology is ready for the mainstream, the company that controls A.I. could steer the tech industry for years to come.
“Whoever wins this race will dominate the next stage of the information age,” said Pedro Domingos, a machine learning specialist and the author of “The Master Algorithm,” a 2015 book that contends that A.I. and big-data technology will remake the world.
In this fight — no doubt in its early stages — the big tech companies are engaged in tit-for-tat publicity stunts, circling the same start-ups that could provide the technology pieces they are missing and, perhaps most important, trying to hire the same brains.
Fei-Fei Li, a Stanford University professor who is an expert in computer vision, said one of her Ph.D. candidates had an offer for a job paying more than $1 million a year, and that was only one of four from big and small companies. On the candidate’s list, one of the biggest technology companies was ranked lowest, in terms of both money and excitement, she noted dryly.
At the University of Toronto, IBM pursued a start-up called Ross Intelligence that makes a smart legal assistant, and extended a free offer to use its A.I. software, called Watson. For IBM, the financial payoff would come if start-ups like Ross generated sales, followed by a revenue-sharing arrangement. “No upfront costs at all,” said Andrew Arruda, chief executive of the start-up, which moved last year to Silicon Valley.”
“There is going to be a boom for design companies, because there’s going to be so much information people have to work through quickly,” said Diane B. Greene, the head of Google Compute Engine, one of the companies hoping to steer an A.I. boom. “Just teaching companies how to use A.I. will be a big business.”
This kind of change is what keeps Silicon Valley going. When personal computers displaced mainframe computers, it opened the door not just for Apple, but for companies making PC software for business, games and publishing. In the networking and Internet revolutions, venture capitalists invested in these new computing styles, and another generation of companies was born.
Over the last decade, smartphones, social networks and cloud computing have moved from feeding the growth of companies like Facebook and Twitter, leapfrogging to Uber, Airbnb and others that have used the phones, personal rating systems and powerful remote computers in the cloud to create their own new businesses.
Believe it or not, that stuff may be heading for the rearview mirror already. The tech industry’s new architecture is based not just on the giant public computing clouds of Google, Microsoft and Amazon, but also on their A.I. capabilities. These clouds create more efficient and supple use of computing resources, available for rent. Smaller clouds used in corporate systems are designed to connect to them.
The A.I. resources Ms. Greene is opening up at Google are remarkable. Google’s autocomplete feature that most of us use when doing a search can instantaneously touch 500 computers in several locations as it guesses what we are looking for. Services like Maps and Photos have over a billion users, sorting places and faces by computer. Gmail sifts through 1.4 petabytes of data, or roughly two billion books’ worth of information, every day.”
However, if history is to repeat itself, it is not necessarily the big well-established companies that will win the war. Apple, and Microsoft in the 1970s/80s, Google, and Amazon in 1990s/2000s, came from out of nowhere to dominate new digital technologies of their era.
As an example, a start-up like Diffbot in Palo Alto, Calif., is willing to jump into the fray with industry giants under the assumption that there is plenty to figure out.
The company, which was founded by Mike Tung, a Stanford computer science graduate student, in 2008, recently raised $10 million to compete directly with Google. Even though Diffbot is still being run out of a home near the Stanford campus, Mr. Tung is thinking big.
“Our goal is to capture all human knowledge,” he said. “I would like for Diffbot to build an iconic company around data. There are companies focusing on computing, but there is no Amazon of data.”