The pace of scientific and technical advances driving innovation via disruptive technologies is seemingly accelerating. Advanced manufacturing is making redundant variety of jobs. “Boston Consulting Group reports that it costs barely US$8 an hour to use a robot for spot welding in the auto industry, compared to US$25 for a worker—and the gap is only going to widen.”1 After decades of research, progress in artificial intelligence (AI) is beginning to bear fruit. Recent breakthroughs in deep learning have produced AI systems that in some instances can not only match but also exceed human intelligence. Case in point is the development of a program by AlphaGo in March 2016 that defeated one of the best Go2 players of all time, South Korea’s Lee Sedol. This was a remarkable achievement as conventional programming does not lend itself to coding Go-playing program as the game is not only fairly complex but even the accomplished players are not able to say with any clarity why certain moves are good or bad.
AI-driven machine learning techniques have wide applicability in the process-intensive sugar sector as in practically any other sector. McKinsey, in its recent report3 summarised AI capabilities into the following categories: perception – “sensing the world” and describing it – supported by various tools including natural language processing, computer vision and audio processing; prediction – “using reasoning to anticipate behaviours and results” – of particular use for targeted advertising for particular customers; prescription – “what to do to achieve goals” – optimizing energy use and crystallization, controlling waste; and integrated solutions embracing “complementary technologies such as robotics”. Investment in AI currently runs into billions of dollars for applications in variety of sectors. In the US alone, Intel forecasts self-driving car sector worth US$7 trillion by 2050. While the sugar sector can do with similar levels of progress in chemical engineering, AI will doubtless be a boon for early adopters in the industry.
From the biological sciences, it is the new genetic engineering application gene drives, which has the potential to address an array of issues from agricultural problems to public health, that is provoking excitement, apprehension and trepidation.
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