“AI is a rare case where I think we need to be proactive in regulation instead of reactive, because I think by the time we are reactive, regulation is too late.”  – Elon Musk.

Tesla and Space-X founder Elon Musk’s recent famous (or for some infamous depending on which side of the fence you’re sitting) statements on Artificial Intelligence (AI) have divided the scientific and business community about how we should proceed with big data and its infusion into our daily lives.  There was a lot of buzz leading up to this year’s ITB Asia, as it promised to continue the dialogue about Artificial intelligence as part of the overall theme of ‘The Future of Travel’. The opening Keynote presentations were delivered by Tony Menezes who is the Vice President, Industrial and Distribution Sector IBM Asia Pacific and Rob Torres, Managing Director of Advertising and Marketing, Google.  Both of these gentlemen are in positions in two of the largest companies that are driving AI development, and finding applications for it in the business world.  

Menezes presentation started with some mind blowing statistics flashing up in hypnotic style. The numbers were citing the amount of data that IBM’s Watson AI system is fed with each day and from what sources.  Airline data, aeroplane engine data, hotel booking data, insurance data, meteorological data, health data, personal data, financial data and more; the data sources that were ‘teaching’ Watson came from data-feeds that affect every part of our lives.  

“Imagine what kind of connections could be made and patterns that could be identified through having a cognizant brain analysing it at a rate that is impossible for the human brain to process?  Imagine what it could tell us about your guests? Imagine how it could improve the way we did business?” – the AI sell was on.

Menezes mentioned that right now we are just in the infant stages of ‘AI’, and very soon, the only vocation not dramatically changed by the application of AI might be the job of a ‘hairdresser’, though he thought there actually might be a way for hairdressing to be affected by Watson too.

He preferred to call it ‘AI’ and not go anywhere near the word ‘artificial’ because of the negative connotations – connotations that have perhaps been reinforced by the likes of Elon Musk. Rather, at IBM the ‘A’ in ‘AI’ stands for ‘augmented’, as ‘Augmented Intelligence’ means that we are merely using systems to enhance the way we already think as humans.  

IBM’s Watson provides solutions across many different industries including financial, medical, travel, tourism and customer service.  Some of the latest implementations of Watson include the ‘Connie’ robot concierge collaboration between IBM, Wayblazer and Hilton, and the most recent collaboration with Watson, IBM owned The Weather Company and Trip Advisor.  ‘Connie’, named after Hilton’s founder Conrad Hilton, aggregates data from many sources including Wayblazer’s place data and AI technology, and interacts with guests in a human-friendly way to provide answers to guest enquiries.  Connie learns from each interaction, making her smarter by the day.  The Trip Advisor collaboration means that the Watson ‘brain’ will be analysing meteorological, geographic and search data along with other data sources that can predict trends, and provide adaptive responses for selected searches on TripAdvisor.com.  The system continuously learns, and is smart enough to understand customer preferences as well as the current situation at a given destination.  Suppose that it’s raining when a search is made for an outdoor venue, a suitable indoor alternative might be made that matches the searcher’s profile.

Google’s Rob Torres was equally excited about what Google was doing in the AI sphere, especially in Travel.  You might have noticed recently, that if you use a Google hosted mailing system, and in particular Google’s ‘Inbox’, that each time you made a reservation with a hotel or airline, the trip is nicely ‘compiled’ into a very nice looking schedule complete with graphics, flight times, hotel details, booking codes and more.  Torres said that this is only the tip of the iceberg when it came to Google’s AI capability.  To enjoy the full functionality of Google’s travel AI, you can download the Google Trips app in the App Store or Play Store.  I downloaded the app as he was speaking and when I opened it I was a little startled.  Every single trip, hotel stay and even travel enquiry that I had ever made since I had a Google account was listed there in full gloss in the app.  All the hotels, airline bookings, airlines and even preferences were listed.  This data is all fed into Google’s AI system to help the system learn and predict even more about all facets of the industry, and more importantly about us as consumers.

One word that kept on popping up during both of these tech-giants’ presentation was ‘Hyper Personalisation’.  They suggested in a phantasmical and even ominous way, that even within the next year, we will see ‘Hyper Personalisation’ in a way that we have never seen before.  There was a suggestion that for Google at least, one of the vehicles for this will be via the adoption of the Google Home system. It was mentioned that while ‘our generation’ has privacy hangups when it comes to tech like this, Millenials seem happy to sacrifice a degree of privacy for the benefits that technology can bring them – our hangups will seem trivial to them in years to come.

Ominous or exciting? The business applications of AI (artificial or augmented) and ‘Hyper Personalisation’ seem to be unlimited, with the next 12 months seeing a big shift in the way that we will be learning about and communicating with our guests.  For those in the hotel industry still reluctant to jump on the digital bandwagon, you might need to jump on very soon lest you wake up in a world that you cannot function in anymore.  On the other hand, perhaps we should heed Elon Musk’s warnings about jumping too eagerly into AI.  Perhaps providing a real human touch will be an exotic skillset that gives us a premium product that we can provide to guests in the coming years.