This is the revolutionary age of machines that can understand

Ireland is at the helm of this cognitive industrial revolution, and businesses need to get on board

The industrial revolution was a major turning point in history. Until the advent of steam engine technology, economic growth and wealth-creation were stagnant. After 1800, economic growth statistics accelerated, and they have continued to do so ever since.

This happened initially in industrial nations across Europe and North America, but everywhere else soon followed. In the centuries since we have witnessed subsequent revolutions in industrial technology, from chemistry and electricity in the 19th century to computer technology in the 20th.

Today artificial intelligence (AI) is enabling the next industrial revolution, but this one is very different to what has come before.

All the technology developed in previous economic revolutions was about improving our ability to do something with our existing situation. Steam enabled us to move across the world and to manufacture on a grander scale. Iron and the invention of machine tools further increased our physical capabilities.


The technological revolution which brought the advent of computers and the internet vastly improved our ability to store and process large amounts of information, but that technology fell short of being able to understand that information.

Artificial intelligence, and all of its associated technologies, is changing that. This is the revolutionary age of machines that can understand. We are already seeing the development and use of technology that is perceptive and capable of working with us, humans, on equal footing. This is the cognitive industrial revolution.

Smart cities

The industrial revolution transformed the idea of a city. The cognitive industrial revolution will bring about the reality of cities developing a brain. Smart cities that are responsive to their inhabitants, that are cleaner, more efficient and healthier.

And what about businesses?

Businesses are collecting information all the time. They have data about employees, customers, their processes and systems and yet, until now, businesses have never really known what they know. The cognitive industrial revolution is set to change all that.

We already see applications of this intelligent technology on our smartphones with digital assistants, machine translation and face recognition, but this is only the very start. AI has broken out of the technology sphere. Well used, it will enhance every aspect of our society and lives.

The opportunities for business and enterprise are enormously exciting. The modern enterprise will have the ability to be self-reflective by using data and information it collects, exploiting AI, data science and machine learning to gain a broader and deeper understanding of its operations, its customers, employees and operating context.

All of this will be central in driving better services and better performance.

World class

A confluence of factors puts Ireland at the helm of this revolution. Academic research in AI, machine learning and data science across Irish universities and research centres is world class. Science Foundation Ireland has encouraged collaborations between academics and industry through its Centres Programme.

As a result, research centres have many close collaborations with enterprises that wish to stay ahead of the game in this emerging cognitive industrial revolution.

Deep and broad access to enterprise data is available within the many global companies that have a R&D presence here. Importantly, this data is beyond the reach of big tech companies, enabling potential disruption.

Moreover, given Ireland's membership of the EU, responsible use of sensitive enterprise data originating with employees, customers and other stakeholders will be safeguarded by GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation), the new EU regulatory framework on data privacy and security.

Investment climate

Finally, and equally importantly, Ireland offers the right investment climate of tax incentives for R&D that brings academic research and the enterprise closely together, much closer than in many other countries.

After a number of false starts in the 1970s and 1980s, AI is finally realising its potential in the emerging cognitive industrial revolution.

Ireland is poised to be a leader through early and consistent investment in human capital across relevant academic research while bringing this closely together with industry and other stakeholders.

Dr Paul Buitelaar is senior lecturer of informatics and vice-director of the Insight Centre for Data Analytics at NUI Galway. The Insight Centre for Data Analytics is organising a seminar on AI and the Smart Enterprise at the Helix (DCU) on June 7th.