Artificial intelligence helps farmers, doctors and rescue workers make a positive impact on society.
Artificial intelligence (AI) powers many gadgets, like smartphones, smart thermostats and voice-activated virtual assistants that bring modern conveniences to daily life. Increasingly, AI is also being used to tackle critical social challenges.
AI is a branch of computer science where machines can sense, learn, reason, act and adapt to the real world, amplifying human capabilities and automating tedious or dangerous tasks.
Some experts believe AI has the potential to spark a serious social revolution.
“Artificial intelligence will drive the human race,” said India Prime Minister Narendra Modi, speaking this month in New Delhi about a new e-governance initiative that uses technology to create paperless offices.
“It will be debated whether there will be jobs left or not. But experts say that there is a huge possibility of job creation through AI,” said Modi, adding that the influence of AI is on the rise and has the power to transform economies.
Still, many tech innovators — including physicist Stephen Hawking, Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Tesla founder Elon Musk — caution that humanity could lose control of superintelligent machines, and AI could cause more harm than good.
The evolution of a master machine race has been debated since the mid-1950s when AI research began.
The late Hubert L. Dreyfus, a professor of philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley, challenged the lofty expectations for AI, arguing that machines lack the intuition to compete with human intelligence.
“Current claims and hopes for progress in models for making computers intelligent are like the belief that someone climbing a tree is making progress toward reaching the moon,” explained Dreyfus in his book, Mind Over Machine: The Power of Human Intuition and Expertise in the Era of the Computer, published in 1985.
In the past three decades, attention and energy poured into AI has steadily increased. Many AI researchers agree that AI can be smart without being sentient, which gets to the heart of the fear of the new technology: the difference between intelligence and autonomy.
“In a very narrow way, these systems are ‘more intelligent’ than people, but their expertise applies to a very narrow domain, and they have very little autonomy,” Yann LeCun, Facebook’s director of AI research, told Popular Science. “They can’t really go beyond the task they were designed to perform.”
There is a growing number of AI applications actively improving people’s lives and creating positive change in the world.
At the 2017 SXSW Interactive Festival, Diane Bryant, then executive vice president and general manager of Intel’s Data Center Group, said AI can help manage the use of scarce resources, assist scientific exploration and improve inclusion and human rights around the world.
“AI will deliver societal transformation on par with the industrial, digital and information revolutions,” Bryant told the SXSW audience.
She said AI is taking off because of three key elements: cloud computing that makes computer performance and data storage easily accessible; connectivity that allows fast data transition; and Moore’s Law, which brings continuous increases in computer performance at lower cost.
One of AI’s greatest impacts could be in food production — an industry challenged by a rapidly growing world population, competition for natural resources and plateauing agricultural productivity.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that the earth’s population will balloon to 9.7 billion people on by 2050. At a time when the agricultural land available for farming is shrinking, farmers will need to grow approximately 50 percent more crops.
Enter FarmLogs, a farming management app currently used by one out of three farmers in America. FarmLogs uses data and technology to help farmers monitor fields, track the weather and get insights into soil using historical satellite imagery to calculate irregular plant growth.
“Farming has really changed forever,” said Jess Vollmar, a Michigan farmer and co-founder of FarmLogs. “The next big wave of transformation in this industry will come from data science, in applying the new information that we have in the world into agriculture and helping farmers use that to get the most out of every acre they farm.”
Real-time data analytics helps farmers maximize their crop yields and profits. Using FarmLogs’ field data analyzer, users can quickly compare the potential profits using variables such as soil type and climate zones.
Improving Cancer Diagnosis
Cancer is a frightening diagnosis, impacting 1.65 million people in the U.S. in 2015. Waiting for biopsy results can be stressful, but AI may help accelerate the diagnosis and treatment process.
Working with healthcare industry leaders, by 2020 Intel aims to create one-day precision medicine for cancer patients — that means going to the doctor, getting a diagnosis and receiving a personalized treatment plan, all in 24 hours.
The project is driven in part by prostate cancer survivor Bryce Olson, a global marketing director for Intel whose cancer went into remission after he used targeted molecular testing to create a custom treatment plan.
Known as precision medicine, this type of cancer treatment is based on the genomic sequencing of the individual’s cancer, health history, lifestyle and more.
“We found out that my cancer uses a cell-signaling pathway that the standard care wasn’t even touching,” he said. DNA data in hand, Olson found a clinical trial in Los Angeles that would be a “fit” for his unique cancer.
Using a high-performance computing system, oncologists will be able to employ AI to compare a patient’s molecular test results with a vast database of previous cases. Once a match is found, the physician can use this research to customize each patient’s treatment plan — all in one day.
“In the world of health care, artificial intelligence is still in its infancy,” reported Wired magazine. “But the idea is spreading.”
Keeping Kids Safe
Digital technology makes it easier for predators to create, access and share child sexual abuse images worldwide, according to the U.S. Justice Department.
Online exploitation is rampant, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). In 2016 alone, its CyberTipline received 8.2 million reports related to abusive images, online enticement, trafficking and molestation.
While technology may have helped lead to this problem, AI may be part of the solution.
“As the volume in the pipeline continues to rise, we have to be more and more efficient,” said John Clark, CEO of NCMEC. “Clearly technology has to be front and center.”
NCMEC can scan sites for suspicious content, store massive volumes of data, run a variety of queries and share the data across the organization’s applications. And AI helps automate and speed up the process.
“We’re still in the initial phases, but results so far promise to reduce the typical 30-day turnaround time (to handle a report) to just a day or two. And for a child in a vulnerable situation, those 28 or 29 days can literally be a lifetime,” said Clark.
While fear of the negative consequences remain, AI is proving it can bring about enormous societal benefits.
“AI can really drive the betterment of humankind,” said Intel’s Bryant. “It has the potential to make a positive and lasting impact on the world.”