The resounding win by a Google artificial intelligence program over a champion in the complex board game Go last month was a statement — not so much to professional game players as to Google's competitors.
Many of the tech industry's biggest companies, like Amazon, Google, IBM and Microsoft, are jockeying to become the go-to company for AI. In the industry's lingo, the companies are engaged in a "platform war."
A platform, in technology, is essentially a piece of software that other companies build on and that consumers cannot do without. Become the platform and huge profits will follow. Microsoft dominated personal computers because its Windows software became the center of the consumer software world. Google has come to dominate the Internet through its ubiquitous search bar.
If true believers in AI are correct that this long-promised technology is ready for the mainstream, the company that controls AI could steer the tech industry for years to come.
"Whoever wins this race will dominate the next stage of the information age," said Pedro Domingos, a machine learning specialist and the author of "The Master Algorithm," a 2015 book that contends that AI and big-data technology will remake the world.
At the University of Toronto, IBM pursued a startup called Ross Intelligence that makes a smart legal assistant, and extended a free offer to use its AI software, called Watson. For IBM, the financial payoff would come if startups like Ross generated sales, followed by a revenue-sharing arrangement. "No upfront costs at all," said Andrew Arruda, chief executive of the startup, which moved to Silicon Valley last year.
For years, tech companies have used man-versus-machine competitions to show they are making progress on AI. In 1997, an IBM computer beat the chess champion Garry Kasparov.
Now, Google's AI program is drawing additional attention and pointing to a consolidation among tech's biggest companies.
By 2020, the market for machine learning applications will reach $40 billion, IDC, a market research firm, estimates. And 60 percent of those applications, the firm predicts, will run on the platform software of four companies — Amazon, Google, IBM and Microsoft.
Intelligent software applications will become commonplace, said Jeff Dean, a computer scientist who oversees Google's AI development. "And machine learning will touch every industry."