With all the excitement surrounding the advent of artificial intelligence (AI), there are still a great many things we don't know. Could it lead to the frightening futures depicted in films like Ex Machina, Terminator, and 2001: A Space Odyssey, or might we see less threatening iterations like Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Samantha in Her, or TARS from Interstellar?

The current reality of AI is much less cinematic -- it possesses the learned ability to sift through reams of data in short order and recognize patterns. This has led to breakthroughs in the areas of image recognition, language translation, and beating humans at the age-old game of Go. Some of the biggest advances are ongoing in the areas of medical imaging, cancer research, and self-driving cars.

Still, with plenty of developments thus far, it's hard to know what will be the next groundbreaking application of the technology.

Man in a suit holding a holographic image of a brain

Will AI-as-a-Service be the next killer app? Image source: Getty Images.

AI for the masses

Small Canadian start-up Element AI believes it has the answer: It wants to democratize AI by offering "AI-as-a-Service" to businesses that can't afford to develop the systems themselves. Tech giants Microsoft Corp. (NASDAQ:MSFT), Intel Corp. (NASDAQ:INTC), and NVIDIA Corp. (NASDAQ:NVDA) believe that Element is on the right track and have invested millions to back up that belief.

Currently, AI requires massive quantities of data in order to train the system. Element AI wants to improve on this by reducing the size of the data sets required, which would make the technology accessible to a wider range of businesses, not just those with massive budgets. Element is improving on the AI concept of leveraging. By using a previously trained system and then introducing smaller data sets, the system applies what it learned previously to the new sets of data.

A new approach

Element is currently working on a consulting basis with a very small group of large companies that want to leverage AI without developing the systems in-house. In this way, the company can strategically choose its initial customers and train its systems on the larger data sets, which it will later leverage for smaller clients.

The major players investing in AI have primarily been applying the tech to augment their principal businesses. Microsoft has used the technology to improve its Bing search and to power its Cortana virtual assistant, and has built AI into its Azure cloud computing services. Intel has been working to develop an AI-based CPU and has made numerous acquisitions in the field, hoping to get a leg up.

NVIDIA is the only one to date that has been able to quantify the value of AI to its business, as its GPUs have been used to accelerate the training of AI systems. In its most recent quarter, NVIDIA saw revenue of $1.9 billion, which grew 48% year over year, on the back of a 186% increase in its AI-centric data-center revenue.

Several humans in an office with AI-inspired heads in a sea of binary code

Element is providing a novel approach to the AI trend. Image source: Pixabay.

Pure play in a crowded field

Still, none has emerged as a pure play, selling AI-as-a-Service. Element hopes to change that by being the first company of its kind to provide predictive modeling, recommendations systems, and consumer engagement optimization, available to any business, without them having to start their AI efforts from scratch. Providing access to experts in the field that can analyze a business and determine how best to apply AI to solve specific problems will prove beneficial to a wide range of companies without their own AI resources. By filling that void, Element AI hopes to make its mark.

International Business Machines Corp. (NYSE:IBM) provides the closest example, pivoting from its legacy hardware and consulting businesses to selling cloud and cognitive computing solutions via its AI-based Watson supercomputer. Thus far, these newer growth technologies haven't been able to compensate for the shortfall in its legacy business, though the company is applying AI to a wide variety of business processes and has assembled an impressive array of big-name partners. By casting its net into cybersecurity, tax preparation, and a variety of healthcare-related applications, IBM hopes to capitalize on this emerging trend.

Early days

It is still early days in AI research and technology, and how the future plays out is yet to be determined. Element AI is taking a unique approach -- and the backing of these three godfathers of tech shows that it might be on the right track.

Teresa Kersten is an employee of LinkedIn and is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors; LinkedIn is owned by Microsoft. Danny Vena has the following options: long January 2018 $25 calls on Intel. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Nvidia. The Motley Fool recommends Intel. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.