This is a guest post by Jim Crowley, CEO and president of Forge.AI, a stealthy Boston startup that is “creating fuel for intelligent machines.” The former Skyhook Wireless CEO founded it with Adelphic Mobile co-founder Jennifer Lum.

Artificial intelligence technologies — machine learning and deep learning, just to name two — are fundamentally transforming and altering the business landscape. That this shift is happening is obvious to those involved in, or even casually following, the information technology space. The number of blog posts, articles, headlines and conferences discussing variants on this topic number in the tens of thousands and they are increasing daily. While the expressed perspectives are diverse, a single theme is consistent: the AI wave is going to have a profound impact on how businesses operate, compete and thrive.

Jim Crowley. Photo provided.
Jim Crowley. Photo provided.

Andrew Ng, the former chief scientist at Baidu, expressed a noteworthy observation regarding the impact of AI on businesses: “Just as electricity transformed everything 100 years ago, today I actually have a hard time thinking of an industry that I don’t think AI will transform in the next several years.” The use of the word “transform” gives us a sense as to how one of the world’s leading AI thinkers envisions the scope and impact of the coming change. Similarly, Ng’s statement that this transformation happens over the next “several years” reveals a belief that this is not some far off future – this is now.

The analogy made by Ng with respect to AI and electricity is in a powerful one. It also raises an important and related question – in the world of AI, what is the equivalent of “electricity” and where does it come from? Electricity was never a “thing” that was just lying around just waiting to be used. It had to be created. The power plants that drove the industrial revolution relied on coal as the key fuel for generating the electricity that drove that revolution (fortunately that dirty fuels day is almost over!). Just as coal was the primary fuel used by industrial power plants for generating electricity, data is the new fuel that will power the digital generators of the AI revolution.

“Data is the new fuel that will power the digital generators of the AI revolution.”

The volume of raw data available is massive and it is growing at an explosive rate. A Forbes article recently noted that data is growing faster than ever, and it estimated that by the year 2020 1.7 megabytes of new information will be created every second for every human being on the planet. The fact that a massive and growing amount of data exists does not mean that an endless supply of “AI Fuel” is there for the taking. Existence does not equate to usability. Just as the coal used by industrial power plants was the result of a complex mining, production and supply chain process, the data that will be used as fuel also needs to go through its own complex assembly line and supply chain process. It first needs to be collected, then extracted, then refined and ultimately transformed from its raw form into “computationally relevant fuel” before it can power the emerging AI infrastructure. Doing that, and doing that at scale, presents a significant and ever-growing challenge – just like fueling the power plants of old did.

Let’s take a quick look at just one aspect of that data challenge: the challenge of unstructured data. Analysts estimate that approximately 90 percent of the global data being produced is unstructured, meaning the data has no predefined data format. The world’s growing AI infrastructure, on the other hand, is generally designed to run on structured data inputs. This creates a striking imbalance: up to 90 percent of the world’s existing data is walled off from the world’s growing AI infrastructure. Entire oceans of data are being left untapped, inaccessible and locked away.

Challenges, however, create opportunities and here in Boston there is a robust and thriving ecosystem of entrepreneurs, scientists and engineers already tackling, or seeking to tackle, the challenges and opportunities being created by the AI shift and the need to transform data into a form that can fuel that shift. Exciting times – you bet. Big business to be built – for sure. Epic journeys being started – no doubt.