Why We Must Embrace, Not Fear, The Rise Of Artificial Intelligence

30/09/2016 16:36
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The implications of artificial intelligence, or "computer systems able to perform tasks requiring human intelligence", have been a discussion point ever since the term was coined back in the 1950's and it continues to generate both wonder and unease in equal measure. Stories about new applications of AI appear every day. The pace of change is so rapid that we do not have time to adjust to the new normal before the next advancement has been made, which only contributes to the anxiety around it. However, many of the headlines we see infer that AI is doing more than is actually the case. For example, examining a recent story about a horror movie trailer being "created" by AI reveals that actually the AI only selected the scenes to be used in the trailer, having been trained to do so using hundreds of previous horror movie trailers. The real creative task, assembling and editing those scenes to tell a coherent story and adding the music and effects, was still done by a human. This achievement of AI is nonetheless remarkable, but clearly the role of the person in the creative process remains pivotal. Speed and efficiency in that process were increased dramatically due to AI but this enhanced the human rather than replaced. As yet, AI does not possess the emotional intelligence to make the creative leaps of humans.

Many news stories focus on the fear of job automation, with some predicting up to half of jobs being computerized within the next 20 years. This situation is very real and one that must be addressed, as must the anxieties around it. Waves of automation have occurred often throughout history, but new industries and jobs have always previously been created that balance the ones being disrupted. That is not the case now. The shift to AI does not itself open up new industries and occupations for the people it displaces. Our best political, sociological and economic minds will need to devote their attention to finding ways to help those whose roles are made obsolete through automation, eventually even completely redefining what 'jobs' mean in a world where human labour is increasingly unnecessary. This will be a time of vast and dramatic changes, and we must be proactive in how we face those changes.

There are many ways in which AI will bring tremendous value and benefit into the world for huge numbers of people, and there are influential people aiming to ensure that this is the focus of AI development. One such example is OpenAI, funded by Elon Musk, whose goal is to "...advance digital intelligence in the way that is most likely to benefit humanity as a whole...". The IBM-sponsored AI XPRIZE, which challenges global teams to "...develop and demonstrate how humans can collaborate with powerful AI technologies to tackle the world's grand challenges" is another potential significant project IBM Watson, the computer system capable of answering questions posed in natural language, is being used to help determine cancer treatments and has already saved a life by diagnosing a rare form of leukemia. AI can be used to improve education, science, health or even provide legal support, such as a chatbot which successfully contests parking tickets demonstrates.

Through natural language processing, the process by which an AI can understand and interpret requests put to it, AI can enable the democratization of expert knowledge and information for huge numbers of people who would ordinarily lack access to those who can supply information they need. Combining this with increasingly sophisticated personalization means that a new era in education beckons, with learning tailored to suit the strengths and weaknesses of every unique individual in terms both of what they are taught and how it is taught to them. Huge freedoms are upon us with the ability of AI to provide problem solving on demand. Problem solving in seconds, working on every possible permutation of a problem in parallel, available 24 hours a day, every day. The potential benefits to come from applications of artificial intelligence could be world changing in the truest sense of the term.

AI truly is a revolutionary technological development, but it is up to us humans to decide to what ends it is directed. We must ensure that those ends are more than mere profit and progress is not driven solely by financial gain. At the same time, rejecting technological progress has never been an option, it wasn't for the first Luddites who rebelled against machine looms in the 1800's and it isn't now. Fear of AI will not help us use this important tool for change. Embracing the positive contribution, we can make through AI is the first step in helping to solve the very real problems facing the world and creating a brighter future we can all believe in.