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Machine learning and artificial intelligence have the ability to transform everything from transportation to medicine, but the industry has a long way to go to get to that point.

Bloomberg Beta Partner Shivon Zilis and Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence CEO Oren Etzioni talked AI, robotics, machine learning, voice integration, online privacy and other futuristic topics at the GeekWire Summit 2016. The very agreeable pair concurred that AI and machine learning are showing up in a lot of applications and industries already, but the development of those concepts is in only the first inning of a nine inning game.

The sentiments over AI and machine learning aren’t always positive. Concern over job losses, and of course the fear over a great robot uprising is persists. But AI, Zilis and Etzioni said, has the potential to make people’s lives better and even save lives.

“AI research in some ways is not a thing we should be scared of, but a moral imperative. There are so many lives lost today whether it’s auto accidents or medical errors or whatever else, we kind of have to invest in these systems in some sense,” Zilis said.

Zilis and Etzioni pointed to driverless cars and the medical industry as a couple of examples of areas where machine learning and AI could make an impact or are already doing so. As the Baby Boomer population ages, there is going to be a greater need for medical care. And it’s possible that a lot of people won’t be able to afford individual caregivers. AI and machine learning might be able to fill that void.

Or AI might be able to help out people who are lonely. Though Amazon’s Alexa, and other voice-powered offerings, aren’t able to carry on full conversations yet, but there is a push to make that happen.

Zilis and Etzioni did not see a future with a single company serving as our AI overlords. There are so many possible applications for concepts like machine learning and AI that it would be practically impossible for one company to control everything. Zilis sees the AI world siloed into a setup where big companies like Google, Amazon and Facebook control pieces of the pie, but startups have a role to play, as well. The big companies have open-sourced a lot of their ideas, allowing for anyone to come and devise a new use for the technology.

“Basically all the building blocks and components are there for someone who wants to take these technologies to an industry that perhaps wasn’t data driven or heavy on machine learning before,” Zilis said.

Day 2 of the GeekWire Summit 2016 at the Seattle Sheraton, October 5, 2016. Photo by Dan DeLong for GeekWire
Bloomberg Beta Partner Chivon Zilis. Photo by Dan DeLong for GeekWire

One of the tech industry’s biggest investors, Marc Andreessen agrees that machine learning and AI breakthroughs could come from companies big and small. In recent a Q&A with Vox, Andreessen said more computer science graduates have a grasp of these concepts, and small AI companies have begun spinning out of places like Google. What once used to take thousands of engineers to figure out, now only takes a few because there is a better understanding of the concepts.

For all of its benefits, one thing holding AI and machine learning back is how difficult it can be to set up and operate. Machine learning and AI are great, but they need plenty of human intelligence to keep them on track.

“To people who don’t understand the details, implicitly or explicitly, well deep learning is magic,” Etzioni said. “It ain’t magic. Out of the box for example, it typically it doesn’t work. You have to do a lot of tinkering and labor to get it to work.”

Day 2 of the GeekWire Summit 2016 at the Seattle Sheraton, October 5, 2016. Photo by Dan DeLong for GeekWire
Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence CEO Oren Etzioni. Photo by Dan DeLong for GeekWire

These technological advances have other drawbacks as well. It seems like everyone is making a bot today, and some of them can be pretty annoying, the panelists said. Etzioni also acknowledged that AI could threaten jobs in some industries, particularly transportation.

Privacy is a concern as well. As more systems become technology driven, there is a greater chance that people lose control of their own information.

“I think there is no privacy,” Etzioni said. “I think there are two kinds of people: the kind of people who have given up and the kind of people who are deluding themselves. When you have Mark Zuckerberg, who has access to some of the best IT teams in the world, and he has to take sticky tape and put it over the camera in his laptop that tells you that you have no privacy. he’s using a duck tape solution to his privacy problem.”

Watch the full video of Oren Etzioni and Shivon Zilis at the GeekWire Summit above.

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