It may not look like one of Isaac Asimov’s robots or sound like HAL from "2001: A Space Odyssey," but artificial intelligence is here, and it is already having a huge impact on how the world works. From the way you shop for a pair of shoes online to how fast a Formula 1 team can push its car’s engine, AI is helping businesses across the globe save millions by improving performance and efficiency. 

Still, problems like trust and security, not to mention fears of the so-called singularity, when artificial intelligence would overtake human thinking, remain hurdles that the technology must overcome before it goes mainstream.

AI hit the news this week after a program called AlphaGo, developed by engineers at DeepMind, the AI startup acquired by Google in 2014 for $580 million, defeated the world’s No. 1 Go player Lee Sedol. AlphaGo beat Sedol 4 games to 1, claiming a $1 million prize. It was hailed as a milestone for AI and came a decade before many experts believed it would happen.

DeepMind co-founder Demis Hassabis said the achievement left him “speechless,” and Twitter users reacted by “welcoming our robot overlords.” While that sentiment is overstating the victory by several orders of magnitude, machine learning and cognitive computing is already helping to improve the way companies operate.

Five years ago, IBM’s Watson supercomputer made a splash when it beat human opponents to win "Jeopardy," but today the Watson cognitive computing platform is being used by hundreds of companies globally as IBM seeks to make the jump from the theoretical to the real world — and it could be a huge sales driver for the growth-challenged computing giant.

Market research firm IDC claims that by 2018, half of all consumers will interact with services based on cognitive computing on a regular basis. Last September, John Kelly, IBM’s senior research vice president, told Bloomberg that Watson was set to become a “huge engine” for Big Blue.

While growth for the Watson division has been slow since the "Jeopardy" win, it is now beginning to generate significant amounts of revenue, with Kelly revealing it is the fastest- growing part of IBM’s analytics business and could soon pass $1 billion in sales in the near-term. CEO Ginni Rometty’s prediction of Watson's generating $10 billion in revenue by 2023 remains a realistic target.

Rather than seeing AI as a risk, IBM exes said businesses, and the public at large, need to be ready to embrace it as a foundational technology that can change lives.

“I think the real risk for society is not knowing,” Harriet Green, general manager of Watson’s Internet of Things unit, told International Business Times. “Every day we pay the price for not knowing what can be done, not knowing what is wrong with a patient, not knowing where to find critical natural resources.”

AI is developing faster than most predicted thanks to abundant processing power, previously only available on supercomputers that few had access to. Development is also being accelerated thanks to Big Data and the cloud storage infrastructure, which holds all the information that's generated from computers, smartphones and Internet-connected devices and machines.

IBM claims there are in excess of 2.5 billion gigabytes of data being produced every single day, which is the same as 170 newspapers being delivered to  every single man, woman and child on the planet — and making use of this data is key for any business. While AI in popular culture relates to self-aware, sentient beings, in the real world of 2016, AI is all about helping companies make better decisions and operate more efficiently.

Virtual SilverHook v2 - edited IBM's Watson IoT computing platform is able to help Silverhook Powerboats to make the most of all the data they collect. Photo: Silverhook Powerboats

IBM this week announced that Honda’s Formula 1 team is using its Watson IoT platform as part of its analytics. Silverhook Powerboats is another racing team using the AI technology to improve its results. 

Just like Formula 1 cars, Powerboats have dozens of sensors on board to collect huge amount of data on everything from temperature of the engine to how deep in the water the vessel is lying. Silverhook's engineers use IBM's cognitive computing tools to gather the data being collected in real time and analyze it to make more informed choices during races. It lets the team "make decisions on how far we can push the engine, push the performance, without getting into a high-risk factor where we could have an accident,” Nigel Hook, CEO of Silverhook Powerboats, told IBT.

Bringing sense to the chaos of data — both structured and unstructured — is what AI excels at today. It is able to see patterns which humans cannot. “I think that businesses have graduated into understanding that the data they have has a lot of value and yet they do not necessarily know how to use that data,” Antoine Blondeau, co-founder of Sentient Technologies, the world’s most-funded AI company, told IBT. Sentient has so far raised $135 million in four funding rounds from investors including Tata Communications and Horizon Ventures, though a valuation for the company was not disclosed during the last funding round in 2014.

Making it easier to buy shoes online would not be among the challenges most people would think of when asked what problems AI is going to solve — but this is just what Blondeau’s company is doing. Visitors to's Canadian footwear site are the first to get an AI-powered shopping experience, with the system presenting choices to the customer based on what shoes they click on. The system is not based on tagging, which is how almost all online stores try and solve the problem, but on analysis of the images the customer is looking at in real time.

Women's boot_Smart Shopper Sentient Technologies is powering the online shopping experience at using its huge AI network. Photo:

Roger Hardy, the CEO of, told IBT that its Sentient Aware technology, which powers the experience, “offers customers a hyperpersonalized experience that allows them to find that ideal pair of shoes without having to describe them with words or photos.”

Making online shoe shopping better is, according to Blondeau, just the first step to “curating the world’s content.” Thanks to the rapid advances being made in the technology, expanding this capability to all websites and all types of content is “something that could happen over the next few years.”

One of the major hurdles for AI in the coming years will be trust. From trusting automated cars to take control of their vehicles to allowing Siri to make a restaurant booking for them, consumers need time to get comfortable with the technology.

Another issue facing those developing and deploying AI within their business is security, a threat Green believes has been exaggerated by science fiction films. “The only data [Watson] has access to is the data we provide it with. It is not capable of going out on its own and creating — in some iRobot-type of form — its own data construct.”

Angela Merkel @ IBM CeBIT German Chancellor Angela Merkel, center, and President of the Swiss Confederation, Johann Schneider-Amman, right, visiting the IBM Watson Internet of Things (IoT) stand at CeBIT, Hanover, March 2016. Photo: IBM

Silverhook said that it maintains human input at all times to ward off potential risks from AI taking control. “We see the cognitive advisers as being just that, advisers and not decision makers,” Hook said. “We always have a person in the loop.”

Kone, one of the world's biggest manufacturers of elevators and escalators, also uses IBM’s AI platform to help it improve efficiency. Chief Information Officer Antti Koskelin said that “security is the number-one concern” but added that consumers will overcome their fears of AI as they have with other technologies. “We all know there is a risk from from internet banking, but this is just so convenient that we really will use it,” Koskelin told IBT.

A recent report by the Pew Research Center revealed that two-thirds of Americans expect robots or computers within the next half-century to take over many of the jobs now performed by humans. This is not how IBM sees it. “This era of cognitive computing will augment and expand human intelligence, not replace it,” Green said. “We do not see Watson as a job killer. In the man-versus-machine narrative for us, humans are the only heroes of this story.”