Why fear should not blind us to the promise of AI: A healthy dose of optimism

Why fear should not blind us to the promise of AI: A healthy dose of optimism
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A recent BBC article highlights that experts from the University of Cambridge, Facebook and Amazon, fear “Terminator: Dark Fate” could mislead the public on the actual dangers of artificial intelligence (AI).

From “Terminator,” to “I am Robot,” portrayals in popular culture tend to paint AI as a danger to the human race. Fear of the unknown is innate in humans. It is easier for us to envisage things based on the way they’ve been than to foresee how they will be. So, we can be forgiven for feeling uneasy about the rise of AI and how it is predicted to change society.

Each of us has heard talk of the technology’s potential to make our lives less private, less free, and less equal, decimating jobs and installing biased algorithms in the process. However, amidst the media swirl, we should carefully consider how these criticisms tend to unfairly overlook AI’s phenomenal potential for good — Take the fact AI will likely help cure cancer, or that it may hold the key to feeding the 2 billion additional humans inhabiting the planet by 2050.

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This push-pull of tech displacement is something I know all too well. I have spent the past two decades helping enterprises capitalize on opportunities in new disruptive technologies and expand their ecosystems. I'd almost be tempted to say that this is familiar territory, apart from one aspect — I've never encountered a technology with more promise for contributing positively to society.

AI can actually make the impossible, possible. The United Nations has identified 17 goals for sustainable development by 2030, and AI-based technologies are already proving critical to achieving 13 of these targets. The impact on just two of these fields — health and climate — have the potential to positively transform global society, and they can remind us why the inevitable disruptions are as much a reason for optimism as they are for anxiety. Taking a closer look, we can glimpse AI’s prodigious capacity to have a positive world-changing impact.

A healthier tomorrow

Accessible, affordable and effective healthcare is something the developed and developing worlds continue to strive toward. AI has the potential to close these gaps by enabling earlier and more accurate diagnoses and eliminating preventable and premature deaths. Medicine informed by such technology also has the ability to personalize treatment like never before.

AI has already shown that it can analyze chronic conditions better than any tool we have ever seen, which can be the key to making early diagnoses for cancer, for nervous system diseases like Parkinson’s, as well as for cardiovascular diseases. Using AI, doctors can detect heart failure from one heartbeat with 100 percent accuracy. AI and computer vision have also been shown to detect skin cancer with 95 percent accuracy, far surpassing the accuracy of doctor-provided diagnoses.

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As with most contemporary leaps in innovation, many of these cutting-edge applications have come from startups. VCs are now paying close attention to healthtech startups. With more funding, development and entrepreneur interest to boot, the potential advances in modern medicine are seemingly limitless.

AI is already making a clear impact on efforts relating to the UN’s goals for the good health and well-being of populations around the world. Ending epidemics like AIDS, malaria, and other tropical diseases around the world will take even more ingenuity and coordination. But in view of the ways AI has begun to make the world healthier, such ambitious targets are not difficult to imagine.

A climate under control

The pessimism towards AI uptake is surpassed by the pessimism towards climate change inaction. The threat of longer droughts, stronger storms and dead coral reefs if global emissions are not halved within the next decade has seen young people report feelings of helplessness and "ecological grief."

The impact of uncontrollable climate change, paradoxically, is something which this technology can help to control. AI enables vastly improved methods for predicting natural disasters and strengthening disaster response efforts in affected communities. The combination of AI working with machine vision and satellite imagery is also making possible more efficient means of monitoring deforestation and agricultural emissions — and these technologies can together assist with identifying inefficiencies in emission-heavy industries.

In Norway, the implementation of AI technologies is enabling improved forecasting of electricity generation and demand, allowing for better integration of renewables. In China, IBM’s Green Horizon project is using AI to forecast air pollution, track pollution sources, and recommend mitigation strategies. With transportation accounting for a quarter of energy-related CO2 emissions, AI has helped researchers search out ways to optimize transportation and reduce the resulting CO2.

Further, geoengineering promises major emissions reductions thanks to AI. New low-carbon materials designed to replace steel and cement — materials which account for almost 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions — have been accelerated by new tech. From energy production and carbon removal to monitoring deforestation, AI is a powerful ally in helping forestall climate change’s detrimental effects.

A misunderstood step forward

AI’s potential contributions to healthcare and the issue of climate change are merely the tip of the iceberg. The UN has outlined 15 other equally ambitious sustainable development goals for 2030. And if not a panacea, AI is likely the closest thing we’ve got to a silver bullet for making such lofty goals achievable. AI has the capacity for good in countless domains, including optimizing food supply chains, supporting animal conservation and enabling more efficient energy, pollution and traffic management in cities.

So, why the AI apprehension? There is no escaping that its adoption will come with unintended consequences that challenge the status quo — but history shows that the emergence of new technologies also creates a multitude of new jobs and unleashes demand for existing ones. Technology raises productivity growth, which in turn boosts demand and creates jobs. Moreover, any job disruption in the short-term must be considered alongside major efficiencies in the long-term.

Certainly, the potential for dystopian surveillance systems and biased algorithms do call for prudence, but the wider context of already foreseeable benefits means AI innovation must not be halted. It should not be the fear of AI which drives economies and decision makers — rather, they should be driven by the fear of missing out on the many opportunities AI presents.

Golnar Pooya is a Partner with IBM Digital Strategy practice and an advisor at 7 Gate Ventures.