Why no-code AI is the next frontier of software development

6 Apr 2022

Image: Dr Michelle Zhou

Former IBM researcher Dr Michelle Zhou makes the case for a no-code future and how it can help narrow the ‘AI divide’.

Behind every smart machine or AI tool is some form of code, most likely built by very experienced engineers and developers, maybe entire teams of them.

But as technology evolves, there is a certain balancing act taking place. While there is some incredibly advanced and complex emerging tech bursting onto the scene, there is also a movement towards making technology simpler and more accessible.

This has been called the low-code or no-code movement, which essentially “brings AI to the masses” by allowing anyone to use a platform with a visual, often drag-and-drop interface to deploy AI and machine learning models with little to no code.

One big advocate of no-code AI is computer scientist and former IBM researcher Dr Michelle Zhou. “Software is eating the world and artificial intelligence is only accelerating it. This is why the future of software is no-code and the next frontier is no-code AI,” she told SiliconRepublic.com.

Zhou is co-founder and CEO of Juji, an AI company that specialises in building cognitive conversational AI technologies that enable others to create no-code chatbots.

Prior to starting Juji, Zhou led the User Systems and Experience Research group at IBM Research. She was also an inventor of the IBM Watson Personality Insights – a service that uses linguistic analytics to infer intrinsic personality characteristics from an individual’s digital communications – and led the research and development of at least a dozen products in her areas of expertise.

The AI divide

Zhou believes no-code AI is the future and mediums that require deep coding expertise and massive computational power will become obsolete.

She said that in order to build smart machines that can help people effectively, companies need a huge amount of resources including many PhDs with a deep understanding of AI, talented software engineers to build something, intensive computational power and large amounts of training data.

“Most organisations do not really have that luxury. They don’t have a dedicated AI team. They don’t even have a dedicated IT team [and] they definitely don’t have the training data.”

She said this will create a “huge AI divide” between organisations that can afford these resources and those that cannot.

To combat this, Zhou created Juji to not only build cognitive AI assistants but to create a design studio that allows people to design the customised AI assistant they want, without needing to code it from scratch. She likened it to PowerPoint for its drag-and-drop abilities.

One example of how it could be used is by a HR manager or recruiter. Without needing to know how to code, they can go into Juji’s system to create a customised AI assistant that will interact with potential candidates.

‘Most organisations don’t have a dedicated AI team. They don’t even have a dedicated IT team’

Zhou added that a key benefit of no-code AI is that it could change the relationship between machines and humans. Traditionally developers have to write every line of code in order to instruct a machine to carry out tasks, which means they are essentially “operators of machines”.

“But once you have no code, especially reusable AI, the relationship changes from operator of machines into a supervisor of the machines.”

While no-code AI simply means an easily designable interface to build a piece of software without code, reusable AI means the individual components at each layer can be pre-trained or pre-built, then reused or easily customised to support different AI applications.

Zhou said she’d love to see no-code AI encourage people to adopt new technologies, especially those from non-technical backgrounds.

“They have a wealth of domain knowledge and then if they can actually adopt AI to help their job, help their audience, I think it’s a wonderful world for both sides.”

AI ethics

With AI so deeply embedded in virtually every area of tech, Zhou was asked about her thoughts on ensuring AI remains ethical, particularly when it comes to reusable AI that could be very appealing to cybercriminals.

She started with the well-known adage so often used in the tech world: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

From her own perspective, Juji has what Zhou calls “guards” in its AI. While the chatbots are customisable, there is a watermark embedded into the AI that cannot be removed.

This watermark is there to detect if the AI is being used to gather sensitive information such as social security numbers or bank details and alert the user. “This gives the users at least a chance to actually reflect upon it.”

Zhou added that while AI can be an amazing tool, it is also a double-edged sword and finding the balance between helping and harming will be key for the industry going forward.

She said while the Food and Drug Administration is responsible for approving medicines in the US after rigorous trials, there is no equivalent for AI technology.

“I don’t know how that’s going to happen. Because of course, once you have this in place, it may also impede the speed of development and speed of innovation. So then, on another side of the fence, people might say how can we strike the balance?”

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Jenny Darmody is the editor of Silicon Republic