The AI race: To the victor the spoils

Tech companies jostle for dominance in 'platform war' that offers vast rewards

SAN FRANCISCO • The resounding win by a Google artificial intelligence (AI) programme over a champion in the complex board game Go this month was a statement - not so much to professional game players as to Google's competitors.

Many of the tech industry's biggest companies, like Amazon, Google, IBM and Microsoft, are jockeying to become the go-to company for AI. In the industry's lingo, they 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 centre of the consumer software world. Google has come to dominate the Internet through its ubiquitous search bar.

If true believers in AI are correct that this long-promised technology is ready for the mainstream, the company that controls AI could steer the tech industry for years to come.

"Whoever wins this race will dominate the next stage of the information age," said machine learning specialist Pedro Domingos, author of The Master Algorithm, a 2015 book that contends that AI and big data tech will remake the world.


Whoever wins this race will dominate the next stage of the information age.

MR PEDRO DOMINGOS, a machine learning specialist and author of The Master Algorithm

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 AI software, called Watson.

For IBM, the financial pay-off would come if start-ups like Ross generated sales, followed by a revenue-sharing deal. "No upfront costs," said Mr Andrew Arruda, chief executive of the start-up which moved to Silicon Valley last year.

For years, tech companies have used man-versus-machine competitions to show they are making progress on AI. In 1997, an IBM computer beat the chess champion Garry Kasparov. Five years ago, IBM went even further when its Watson system won a three-day match on the television trivia show Jeopardy! Today, Watson is the centrepiece of IBM's AI efforts.

"It's early days, but the long-term goal is to have hundreds of millions of people use Watson as self-service AI," said Mr David Kenny, general manager of the Watson unit.

Now, Google's AI programme is drawing additional attention and pointing to a consolidation among tech's biggest companies.

By 2020, the market for machine learning applications will reach US$40 billion (S$55 billion), IDC, a market research firm, estimates. And 60 per cent of those applications, the firm predicts, will run on the platform software of four companies - Amazon, Google, IBM and Microsoft.

Intelligent software applications will become commonplace, said Mr Jeff Dean, a computer scientist who oversees Google's AI development. "And machine learning will touch every industry."

The question remains, how quickly? To some, the rush to build platforms is taking place long before the technology has matured. What is more, they are still focusing on niches, said Mr David Yoffie, a Harvard Business School professor.

"None of them have the opportunity to be as ubiquitous as an operating system became in the PC era," he said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 27, 2016, with the headline 'The AI race: To the victor the spoils'. Print Edition | Subscribe