Monday 1 April 2019 6:48 pm

The Matrix was released 20 years ago – how close are we to the film's vision of a tech dystopia?

The Matrix first premiered in US cinemas yesterday 20 years ago. It revolutionised the way that we viewed the potential power of machines, and simultaneously marked the dawning of an age of suspicion and fear surrounding our relationship with technology.

Yet far from the apocalyptic fears of artificial intelligence (AI), the applications of this emerging technology are more realistic than fantastical. It is used in exciting and innovative ways to drive efficiency and growth, improve the world, and free up our time.

So how has AI changed since we first debated whether we’d take the red pill or the blue pill?

AI used to be more of a theoretical concept, which was due to a shortage of expertise, a lack of understanding of how to apply it to the real world, and the computing power of the time.

Today, highly scalable infrastructure built on custom hardware enables AI models to be run at almost any scale. The theories have been understood and productised, meaning that data scientists with no AI knowledge are still fully capable of building models.

AI is not just in films anymore. People are benefiting from it every day.

The personal touch

We all benefit from AI through the way that it enables brands to continually improve their understanding of us and our preferences – meaning that everyday consumer experiences can be tailored to each individual.

We are interacting with an ever-expanding range of touchpoints across devices, generating vast datasets on our interests. AI can spot patterns and trends in these that would take a human days or weeks to analyse, and even then would prove impossible to actually use at scale.

This intelligence manifests in areas like retail, which is rapidly moving towards a world in which each consumer shopping experience is totally individual. AI will soon provide a personal experience at every turn – from ordering our groceries to tailoring medicines to our unique needs. It turns out that the real Agent Smith is just very good at life admin.

Improving lives

AI is also empowering us to understand ourselves better. It enables us to access huge amounts of information and find links where we may not have been able to before.

Despite negative headlines around “bad actors” using data for ill-gotten-gains, providing our personal data for AI use has real benefit. As one example, the Royal Free Hospital in London is using Google’s DeepMind to interpret data faster and monitor patients, enabling staff to make treatment decisions with more accuracy.

Freeing time

Finally, AI can free us from repetitive tasks and leave us with more time to focus on creative, thoughtful, or more meaningful work.

This is happening across the board.

The NHS is trialling an AI-powered helpline for non-emergencies to reduce pressure on staff and free up their time for genuine emergencies.

In retail, Ocado is testing robots, coordinated by AI, that are able to pick up orders in minutes, saving staff time and increasing productivity.

AI should be a springboard to improve our work – an assistant, rather than a human replacement.

If we go beyond this, and eventually develop “superintelligence” to take over more complex tasks for us, we could find ourselves in a bath of liquid connected to elaborate electrical systems, just like Neo.

But while we need to put regulation in place to prevent the misuse of AI in the future, it has not yet created the dystopian society imagined in The Matrix.

Not that we would actually know if we were in a simulation right now, anyway.


City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.