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Coming soon: Your own personal AI-driven ‘co-pilot’ to help you at work and in life

Celebrating 20 years of achievement by Microsoft Research Asia

Imagine having a virtual assistant who knows you through and through and can help you in all sorts of tasks and issues in your work and life. Microsoft’s top researchers in Asia predict that artificial intelligence (AI) will soon make this not only possible, but also accessible and affordable.

Eric Chang, Senior Director, Microsoft Research Asia (MSRA)
Eric Chang, Senior Director, Microsoft Research Asia (MSRA)

Eric Chang has been pioneering the development of AI for two decades and says it will become a pervasive part of our daily existence and something that we will soon rely on routinely.

“As humans, we all make mistakes. That’s why there are always two pilots in a jetliner cockpit,” he explains. “If there were only one pilot there might a one-in-a-thousand chance of a mistake.

“But with two double checking one other, the chance of a mistake drops to something like one-in-a-million. Most of us don’t have a backup, like a co-pilot. AI, though, will be able to help.”

Eric is a senior director at Microsoft Research Asia (MSRA), which was established in 1998 in Beijing and is now setting up a new facility in Shanghai. It is one arm of Microsoft’s Asia-Pacific Research and Development (ARD) Group, which has around 3,000 researchers and engineers in  Beijing, Shanghai, Suzhou, Shenzhen, Taipei and Tokyo.

We interviewed him at MSRA’s main Beijing lab as part of celebrations to mark 20years of pushing the boundaries of computer science.

In just the past few years it has notched up a long list of global breakthroughs and surpassed milestones in machine learning, deep learning, and AI. There have also been exciting advances in creating natural interfaces to enable machines to understand and converse with humans through speech recognition, computer vision, instant translation and much more.

With these advances moving ahead, computers and humans will be soon working together largely seamlessly in all sorts of scenarios. Eric sees a not-too-distant future in which AI will make our daily existence more precise, more personal, and more plentiful. “I call it the Three-Ps,” he says.

I call it the Three-Ps … more precise, more personal, and more plentiful.

Take for example, personal finances. “Right now, most people are very underserved in terms of how they manage their finances and how they save and invest for retirement. This is true around the world and unless it changes, it is going to be a huge cost to society as the population ages.”

Unlike most of us, many wealthy families engage expert financial managers to handle everything from paying bills to making investments and advising on all kinds of decisions regarding money.

“Right now, that is a very expensive service to have. But I see a time when ‘ordinary’ people will also be able to enjoy expert management through AI-driven services as part of the democratization of technology and the benefits it can bring.”

Not only will they collect and use data about markets and financial products, these management services will also intimately and confidentially learn about a client’s spending history, goals, and even investment emotions and behaviors. With this knowledge, such a service will be able to advise a client in precise and personalized ways.

“Nowadays only the rich can expect this sort of level of service. AI can make it affordable and accessible, so it will also become plentiful,” Chang says. “I can see a time when AI will be able to advise you on what do with stocks. If some people had not panicked and sold their stocks during the global financial crisis a decade ago, they would have made their money back again and a lot more by now.”

Currently, researchers at MSRA are working on such a pilot project with AMC, one of China’s largest mutual funds. Eric says that financial institutions realize that to differentiate themselves from each other they need to offer services that can be tailored to and meet the needs of individuals.

And, he sees a long list of sector and industries going down that same path with AI in an effort to reach and keep customers.

“AI will help bring us a level of service in all sorts of domains, not just in finance, but also in healthcare and education. AI can be a personal tutor at your service any time, teaching you whatever subject you want at whatever level and speed you need. How many people can afford that now?”

MSRA researchers are currently working with education company, Pearson, on an AI solution to teach foreign languages potentially to millions of Chinese students in a personalized way suited to each individual. “It will be able to make the best use of time and effort, say, by recognizing what vocabulary you already have and moving onto new ones so you don’t have to repeat what you already know.”

Similarly, AI can help make healthcare for each of us more precise and personalized. Right now,  for instance, when we go to a doctor with an undetermined infection the usual initial response is a prescription of wide-ranging antibiotics. But AI can do better. It can analyze scans and images to determine exactly what strain of infection a patient has and then work out a precise treatment.

The same direction has been taken by Chinese startup – Airdoc. It is using AI and machine learning to detect signs of scores of common diseases by analyzing images of retinal scans of individual patients who undergo a simple eye scan.

Non-intrusive, low-cost, superfast, and automated, Airdoc’s system has a higher accuracy rate for finding indications of diseases on retinal images than slower conventional diagnoses by doctors. As such, it has the potential to make preventative healthcare available to millions of people, not just in China, but around the world.