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The Big 6

An interesting little news item caught my eye this week. It seems Apple has joined the Partnership for Artificial Intelligence. In case you hadn’t heard of it, the members of this new organization already include Amazon, Facebook, Google, IBM, and Microsoft. The key tenet of the group is to ensure that AI technologies benefit and empower as many people as possible.

Is this just another tech geek confab or a sign of things to come? Three thoughts.

1. Members Only
Groucho Marx famously said that he refused to join any club that would accept him as a member. His point, of course, is that clubs define themselves by who they include, as well as who they exclude. By this standard, the Partnership for AI is one exclusive club. I have been writing about the Big 4 technology ecosystem companies (Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft) for several years now, with Facebook as the natural fifth member. Each of these companies has planet-wide scale and measure their users or customers in the billions. Just as importantly, these companies own the AI-interfaces (Alexa, Siri, Ok Google, Cortana, and M) that are quickly becoming part and parcel of daily life.

IBM is the odd man out in this group of consumer tech giants, but still an obvious choice. Big Blue is a B2B company these days, providing cloud-based enterprise solutions on a vast scale for governments and the world’s largest companies. Consumers may not interact with IBM algorithms quite so personally as the others, but they are there in the background, adding cognitive abilities to industrial-era systems that we use everyday. Given its pioneering AI work on Watson, IBM is clearly the grande dame of this group, providing adult supervision and establishment heft.

The bottom line: membership in this group is a clear public admission that these companies are heads and shoulders above anyone else on earth in the AI field. Like the nuclear powers of the 20th century, these companies recognize that with great power comes great responsibility.

2. All Big Things Start Small
The first Continental Congress met in 1774 to address the British blockade of Boston and bring the colonists’ grievances to King George. That modest start eventually resulted in a little organization called the United States of America. The European Coal and Steel Community was started in 1951 to help manage French and German industrial production after World War II. That little business meeting turned into the European Union. More recently, Tim Berners Lee started an organization called W3C in 1994 to shepherd a new invention he called the World Wide Web.

The point is obvious, I know, but still hard to grasp. The Partnership for AI may not seem like a very big deal today. But if AI ends up becoming as powerful as some (very smart) people think, this geeky little club could one day become the 21st century equivalent of the G-7 or the UN Security Council. Just remember that you heard it here first.

3. The Algorithm is the Message
So what does all this have to do with our usual topic of TV? More than you think. In the 20th century, mass media outlets were key instruments of social power, cultural development, and control. Whenever revolutionaries took power somewhere, the first things they always seized were the TV and radio stations (along with the newspapers). Media companies back then were a very exclusive (and powerful) club. Those days are numbered.

It’s both obvious and revealing that no traditional media companies are part of the Partnership for AI, nor are they likely to be. Media has become a commodity. The center of gravity (and power) has already shifted to the algorithms, and it’s not coming back. Media companies are on the outside looking in now, just hoping that Siri and Alexa will treat their content brands fairly and not discriminate. AI neutrality, anyone?

For better or for worse, the six companies comprising the Partnership for AI control the future. Here’s hoping this new group lives up to its lofty tenets.

Stick with TDG and stay ahead of the curve.

Joel Espelien is a Senior Advisor for TDG and serves as an advisor and Board Member to the video ecosystem and technology companies. He lives near Seattle, WA.