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IBM's Watson computer system, powered by IBM POWER7, competes against Jeopardy!’s two most successful and celebrated contestants -- Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter -- in a practice match held during a press conference at IBM's Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, NY on January 13, 2011.

When Google's AlphaGo software beat champion Go player Lee Sedol at a five-game match in March, many compared it to the chess showdowns that pitted Garry Kasparov against IBM's Deep Blue back in the mid-1990s (they won a match apiece). But this was different. Go, a game that's popular in Asia, is even more nuanced than chess and infinitely complex, which is why beating a human opponent had become a holy grail for computer scientists. AlphaGo's victory wasn't simply one step beyond Deep Blue; it proved that "smart" artificial intelligence (AI) is no longer some far-off dream.

Over the past few months, we've started to get a taste of the real-world implications. Microsoft, Facebook and Google all kicked off their most recent developer conferences with a clear message: Forget the rise of the machines — the future

is smart software, a.k.a. bots. You've probably already interacted with bots, on messaging apps like Facebook Messenger and Kik, or by calling up Apple's digital assistant, Siri, on your iPhone. As Siri has shown, bots can be programmed to have something approaching a personality and to engage in human-like conversations. They can also carry out tasks like ordering a pizza or booking a flight to New York.

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Those might not be earth-shattering examples of change, but as is often the case with digital, what at first seems like an entertaining trinket or marginal convenience can bode deep structural changes ahead. When it first debuted in 2007, the iPhone was simply a slick new smartphone, but it sparked seismic shifts across
many businesses.

So it will be with bots, because the AI that drives them represents a new kind of tool. Just as we might send in a robot to defuse a bomb, bots could be deployed to mine and analyze the huge and unwieldy amounts of data produced in today's digital-first world at a pace and scale humans simply can't match. They're even starting to be able to relay qualitative information: not just What is my next appointment? but What are the most promising sales trends from the past year? AI's capacity to replace human actions — and do them better — represents the next great business upheaval.

The underlying trend here is machine learning (a concept demonstrated disastrously by Microsoft's Tay chatbot back in March when it took one day for its Twitter chat bot to become a Hitler-loving, anti-feminist 9/11 conspiracy theorist and Donald Trump apologist). The idea is to create software that can produce new information and tools of its own accord — for instance, a system that could sort through stoplight patterns and use what it learns to better direct traffic, all without explicitly being told to do so. This is already happening. IBM's Watson AI has gone from playing (and winning) Jeopardy to delivering treatments for lung cancer, partly by keeping up with and factoring in weekly developments in oncology. Watson is also helping to reintegrate military personnel into civil society by answering questions about benefits and medical concerns, and doing it all in natural, ordinary language. That's a key part of what makes bots so full of potential — the fact that they can understand human queries and respond in kind, rather than with complex mathematical formulas. Now imagine this technology in the hands (literally) of rank-and-file employees at your own company, and you start to get a sense of how AI might change things — and how many jobs it could render obsolete. A sales exec could ask her phone a simple question — say, how oil's effect on currency influenced sales in British Columbia over the past three years — and then use that information to make better strategic decisions. Bots offer a whole new competitive advantage.

For the Googles and Microsofts of the world, the big question is who will own the "layer"—who will become the Windows or iPhone of AI. For just about everyone else, and almost certainly for Canadian companies, it's more a question of where and how to deploy the technology. Because bots will very quickly evolve beyond ordering takeout and calling taxis to become an arsenal of strategic tools able to manage financial reports, staff evaluations, inventory levels, market analysis, logistics and more. In fact, there's a good chance that a decade from now, bots will have changed the business sphere in ways we can't even imagine. After all, who could have foreseen that the iPhone would effectively kill the desktop computer, spawn social media behemoths like Facebook and shake up transportation with the advent of Uber?

Winning at Go was just the start. Brace yourselves — the bots are coming.

You can follow Alang on Twitter: @navalang

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