Tech Trends of 2021: The Rise of AI

Hey there! We’re spending the month of December looking back at what went on in 2021. Keep an eye out for deep-dives and celebrations right here on our blog and on social media.

Your first encounter with the idea of Artificial Intelligence (AI) was probably in a movie theater or a book, some sci-fi story with sentient robots intent on destroying the human race. Our current reality is much less sinister, and also less obvious. Though there are teams working on developing AI robots, much of our interactions with AI in the future will be integrated into devices we already use like smartphones and PCs. That’s why it might seem like AI snuck up on us—it seamlessly blended into our current digital landscape. 

But as one of the most potent emerging technologies of the 21st century, AI is everywhere. The possibilities and capabilities of AI in 2021 alone have grown at a breakneck pace, spurring the United States Defense Office to hire its first-ever chief digital and artificial intelligence officer to head a team fully focused on new technologies, signaling that the US government is taking the future of AI seriously. And it’s clearly not just the United States AI that is paying attention: in June of 2021, 193 countries drafted an agreement defining common values and principles for the use and development of AI.

What is Artificial Intelligence?

In short, AI refers to software systems that can make decisions that usually require a human level of expertise. Unlike passive machines that have a set income and output, AI does real-time analysis of stimuli to decide what action to take, and can even learn and adapt to make different decisions in the future.  

“AI is one of the most important things that humanity is working on. It’s more profound than…electricity or fire.”

Google CEO, Sundar Pichai

Are robots stealing my job?

The human-like decision-making power of AI is both celebrated and feared. On one hand, it means humans can offload a lot of work onto AI and use their time for other pursuits. On the other hand, there is concern that AI will eventually replace humans in different job sectors instead of merely enhancing our productivity. Every year, improved data storage solutions, increased processing speeds, and more advanced algorithms allow AI to expand into more and more aspects of our lives.

close up of angry looking robot

But whichever side of the fence you’re on, the reality is that AI will increasingly be a part of our daily lives, and ignoring it will put you at a disadvantage. And because the field is growing and advancing so rapidly, there are also countless exciting professional opportunities—for those passionate about AI solutions and innovation, going into AI Product Management might be one of the best possible career moves. 

Read Next: Cracking the AI/ML Product Manager Interview

AI for Product Managers: should I learn to bake the bread or build the oven?

Let’s say you want to go into AI Product Management. Great! So where do you start? 

The dilemma is that there are 2 paths you can go down in an AI career: machine learning research, or applied machine learning. Machine learning research is all about understanding existing algorithms and learning how to build new ones from scratch, while applied machine learning uses the already-made algorithms as tools to solve problems. It’s the difference between knowing how to build the oven vs knowing how to bake the bread.

bread baking in oven

When teaching AI, many business schools make the mistake of teaching their students how to build the oven, when they actually these students will be working as bakers. As a Product Manager, however, it is helpful to have some insight into how the oven works. You won’t ever have to build the oven (i.e. you won’t personally be building AI solutions from scratch). 

As with most positions in Product Management, it’s worth it to be competent in both areas. To PM for AI solutions, you don’t have to be a master baker nor a first-class oven builder, but you should be able to have informed conversations with people from both of these worlds. In other words, you need enough technical understanding of AI to talk with engineers in your team, and enough business savvy to have a long-term vision and strategy for your AI product.

Emerging applications

AI can do a lot today. It touches seemingly every industry imaginable—from sports, to healthcare, to music, to fashion, to agriculture. It auto-completes your emails for you and can help you figure out what kind of dog you have. You name it, AI is there. 

Weimaraner puppy looking up at the camera

This means if you want to work in AI Product Management, you can really close your eyes and point to any industry to find opportunities there. To decide which industry to go into, you should think first and foremost about what kind of problems you want to solve and then follow that instinct. If you need inspiration, here are some of the most robust and well-known applications of AI today.

Healthcare

It’s not an exaggeration to say that AI has the potential to save millions of lives. There are AI solutions in the works for the diagnosis, tracking, and treatment of various illnesses: cancer, diabetes, and dementia, to name a few. There’s even an AI nurse named Grace created during the pandemic to help alleviate the pressure from human nurses.

AI diagnostic solutions in particular are getting a lot of attention. Although human doctors are adept at detecting illness, AI can often do it earlier and with more accuracy. Case in point: a cardiologist might miss an obvious diagnosis at the end of a long day, but an AI won’t. It’s unclear how far AI will be able to go in taking over responsibilities from medical professionals, but as we get older it could play a key role in caring for our aging global population.

Digital security

As much as we love the digital world, it comes with its dangers. Cyber attacks are becoming more frequent and severe, so we need to build more complex cyber security solutions. AI can be part of that solution. 

hacker sitting in blue room with red light headset

From smart algorithms that notice when your devices deviate from your normal routine (indicating your device has been hijacked), to biometric verification like fingerprint, face, and voice recognition, AI increasingly functions as a safeguard against things like identity theft and hacking.

Media 

To see the power of AI in social media algorithms, all you have to do is open TikTok. Within a few videos, the algorithm will figure out your preferences you’ll find yourself in a 3-hour doom scroll.

And not to mention developments like deepfakes and other AI technology that can create hyperrealistic media that makes us question our perception of fact and fiction. To blur this line even further, the Metaverse, which would be heavily supported with AI, could even change our definition of what “real life” means.

But for all the futuristic and dystopian ways AI-supported media can shift our perception of reality, it can also help support the truth. With misinformation running rampant online, AI algorithms can identify falsehoods so we can identify and reduce harmful conspiracies and bad faith actors. 

Autonomous vehicles (AVs)

red car driving down a desert road

They’re not quite flying cars, but of all the technologies that scream “we are living in the future,” self-driving cars might take the cake. AVs promise to cut down accidents and increase the efficiency of on-road transportation. The industry dipped in 2020 for obvious reasons, but it’s projected to be a $64 billion dollar industry by 2026, with heavy investments from players like Toyota and Amazon. 

Business solutions

Let’s step away from the consumer side and talk about AI applications in business. 

AI is exceptionally good at using past information and behaviors to predict future outcomes. That’s why it’s used a lot in B2B solutions in areas like marketing, sales, risk analysis, and more. A 2020 study showed that 50% of respondents use AI to some capacity in business functions, creative revenue increases and strengthening competitive advantage. 

If you’re looking to build your team’s tech stack, you might want to consider if there are any AI tools that can automate tasks and save you money and effort.

AI isn’t always the solution

globe made out of city skyscrapers

A word of caution: with every emerging technology, people get excited about the possibilities, without truly knowing what it can realistically solve. AI can’t solve everything, but it’s an extremely exciting time; we’re at that stage of the hype cycle where we get to find out exactly how much it can do! 

But just because you can apply AI to something, doesn’t mean you should. There are plenty of problems out there waiting for an AI solution, but keep in mind that some of them will require a different kind of solution.

Also, as an AI Product Manager, you carry a lot of responsibility. Because it is a new and extremely powerful technology, it’s important that you also be aware of the implications of the products you put out into the world. Stay alert to all the ways that people could misuse the product. Be mindful of human biases that can slip into algorithms. Think through the privacy of your end-user. 

If you keep in mind the possibilities, risks, and limitations of AI, you have the opportunity to have a wide impact and create exciting new solutions. Good luck!

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