Highlights in the use of artificial intelligence in 2021

DEC 06, 2021

The year 2021 was profoundly challenging for citizens, companies, and governments around the world. As covid-19 spread, requiring far-reaching health and safety restrictions, artificial intelligence (AI) applications played a crucial role in saving lives and fostering economic resilience. Research and development (R&D) to enhance core AI capabilities, from autonomous driving and natural language processing to quantum computing, continued unabated.

AI and vaccine development

It typically takes years, if not decades, to develop a new vaccine. But by March 2020, vaccine candidates to fight covid-19 were already undergoing human tests, just three months after the first reported cases. The record speed of vaccine development was partly thanks to AI models that helped researchers analyze vast amounts of data about coronavirus.

There are tens of thousands of subcomponents to the outer proteins of a virus. Machine learning models can sort through this blizzard of data and predict which subcomponents are the most immunogenic—i.e., capable of producing an immune response—and thereby guide researchers in designing targeted vaccines. The use of AI in vaccine development may revolutionize the way all vaccines are created in the future.

Fully automated driving and the rollout of robotaxis

Autonomous driving technology continued to mature in 2021, with the industry’s leading companies testing driverless cars and opening up robotaxi services to the public in various cities. Fully automated driving, which enables rides without a human safety driver on board, will be necessary for the scalability and commercialization of autonomous driving.

Applied natural language processing

In 2021, natural language systems became significantly more advanced at processing aspects of human language like sentiment and intent, generating language that aligns with human speaking and writing patterns, and even visual understanding, meaning the capability to express understanding about an image through language. These natural language models are powering more accurate search results and more sophisticated chatbots and virtual assistants, leading to better user experiences and creating value for businesses. Visual understanding lays the foundation for computer systems to physically interact in everyday scenes, as it involves both understanding visual content and expressing it through language. It will be crucial for improving the quality of human-machine interaction.

Quantum computing

Quantum computing made significant inroads in 2021, including the Jiuzhang computer’s achievement of quantum supremacy. This carries significance for AI, since quantum computing has the potential to supercharge AI applications compared to binary-based classical computers. For example, quantum computing could be used to run a generative machine learning model through a larger dataset than a classical computer can process, thus making the model more accurate and useful in real-world settings. Advanced technologies such as deep learning algorithms are also playing an increasingly critical role in the development of quantum computing research.

AI chips

AI hardware continued to develop in 2020, with the launch of several AI chips customized for specialized tasks. While an ordinary processor is capable of supporting AI tasks, AI-specific processors are modified with particular systems that can optimize performance for tasks like deep learning. As AI applications become more widespread, any increase in performance or reduction in cost can unlock more value for companies that operate a wide network of data centers for commercial cloud services, and can facilitate the company’s internal operations.

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