By Flynn Coleman, International human rights lawyer, writer, professor, social innovator, global citizen.
Courtesy of Peshkova/Shutterstock
It’s approaching 6:00 p.m. You’re at home cooking dinner in your apartment in the Westwood area of Los Angeles when your Echo overrides the music and squawks to life: “Earthquake Alert! Earthquake Alert! 6.7 temblor, epicenter 3.8 miles west of Ventura, California—impact will be in eleven minutes—evacuate, evacuate!”
While you run to the hall closet to grab your earthquake kit, you shout out: “Alexa, where is my emergency evac location?”
“116 Warner Avenue, 1.3 miles away. Walk north to Wilshire, then take a left on Warner,” she responds. “Disengaging gas and electricity, activating battery power.”
As you and your neighbors pour into the building stairwell, you hear audio from a phone: “Google Earth Q estimates substantial potential for structural damage in the West San Fernando Valley and Coastal West Los Angeles to pre-2006 code dwellings and buildings. Most of West LA will experience total loss of power for anywhere from six to twenty-four hours in duration.”
In the street, you are joined by hundreds and then thousands of fellow residents briskly moving toward Warner Avenue, including the elderly, pets, and the infirm, many of whom are transported in automatically deployed electric emergency vehicles.
Moments after you arrive at the shelter, the earthquake strikes. It’s strong and violent but ends in less than a minute. You consult your phone and learn the predicted time and severity of the aftershocks to come. The quake causes property damage, but there are no reported casualties. The shelter is adequately stocked with food, water, and beds for those seeking refuge in the coming days, and has plenty of staff and volunteers on hand to keep things running smoothly. Within twelve hours, you receive a notification on your phone that your water and power are intact, and, soon after, another alert from law enforcement informing you that you are cleared to return home to pick up the debris—which might otherwise have fallen on you had you not been warned in time.
Predicting earthquakes has proven to be so notoriously difficult that it is considered “the holy grail of seismology.” But this scene is now a real and near-term future possibility due to AI’s ability to analyze and interpret enormous amounts of measurements and acoustical data.
This example is meant to illustrate an important truth about AI: while our emerging intelligent technologies have ample downsides if we do not vigilantly monitor their development, artificial intelligence also holds extraordinary potential to transform our world for the better.
The Intelligent Machine Age is going to give us perhaps our last, best opportunity to construct a world where we can all live healthier, happier, more purposeful, and creative lives. It’s still our choice.
If we play our cards right, if we think enough moves in advance, we just might be able to turn the AI revolution into a win for us all. If we can figure out how to successfully partner with intelligent machines, we can use algorithms and data to make our world, our lives, our workplaces, our communities, and our societies better. Educating ourselves to understand emerging tech’s potential threats to our lives and livelihoods allows us to fully appreciate and embrace technology’s potential to empower us, diminish forms of institutional discrimination and unfairness, improve our quality of life, protect our planet and future generations, and enhance our sense of meaning and purpose. The better we understand AI, the better equipped we are to make choices about how it should be used—and how it should not.
We have no reason to expect that AI will want the same things that humans want. Or that what matters to us will matter to them. Indeed, as synthetic forms of intelligence grow up and take over many of our current responsibilities and professions, we will need to focus on what humans can do that machines cannot, and beyond this, to think about what we want our purpose to be as a species. But to chart a successful course we are going to have to identify our future goals and priorities so that we have the best chance of aligning our intelligent machines with what we hold dear, and with our highest aspirations as humans. To put it another way, to invest in light bulbs, we first need to envision the future of light.
Listing all the prospective ways in which artificial intelligence, machine learning, and related technologies could positively impact our future would fill numerous books. Predicting and reducing destruction from natural disasters is just one area of potential, but AI holds immense promise in nearly every field of learning and science. A McKinsey Global Institute paper published in November 2018 identified several areas where broad applications of structured deep learning, computer vision, and natural language processing have the power to dramatically improve lives. The paper highlighted crisis response, economic empowerment, education, the environment, equality and inclusion, health and hunger, information verification and validation, infrastructure, social sectors, security, and justice. Here are a few other examples of benevolent possibilities:
– AI is already making great strides in diagnostic medicine, helping to digitize information and speed up analysis of data in pathology, and, when teamed with a pathologist, is showing an 85 percent reduction- in-error rate in diagnosing cancers. In China, which has one of the highest rates of lung cancer in the world, radiologists are using newly developed AI technology to more accurately detect cancer in scans.
– AI can help us to equalize our societies like never before. Along with this will come a surge of human brilliance that has been hidden beneath layers of inequality and other societal obstacles. We are already seeing some imaginative programs. Avantgarde Analytics uses machine learning to connect citizens with the causes they care about, helping build social movements and relationships between lawmakers and the public. Factmata, another AI start-up, is helping to empower people to check facts through natural language processing that aims to reduce the virulent spread of online misinformation. Innovative initiatives like Microsoft’s AI for Earth are using AI technology to process information on a less prejudicial basis, reducing the groupthink that is endemic to strife and conflict, and working on projects that promote sustainability and help solve our most dire global environmental challenges. These can serve as models for corporate social responsibility, future development, and impact investment.
– The same drone technology used by the military can also deliver blood, food, and medicine to remote areas that normally have little access to life-saving care. In December 2018, one-month-old Joy Nowai became the first baby to receive a drone-delivered vaccine on a remote island of Vanuatu. In places with hard-to-reach segments and poor road conditions, drones can provide new solutions, just as cell phones did. Drones are in flight in Rwanda, where the world’s first commercial drone delivery service is sending blood to almost half the country’s transfusion centers. Plans are in place to expand operations throughout the subcontinent, as well as in Latin America and the United States.
– AI may also help to end the prison system as we know it. The Technological Incarceration Project is experimenting with using machine learning algorithms and sensors to test home detention, making incarceration more humane and moving it away from the biased, discriminatory, and inhumane treatment that focuses on past crimes and toward the Scandinavian model of rehabilitation in the prison systems.
– AI can help to track migration patterns and investigate illegal wildlife trafficking, tasks essential for protecting species and ecosystems. As the elephant populations of Malawi, South Africa, and Zimbabwe dwindle rapidly, drones in these regions are patrolling the skies to fight against poachers. Intelligent tech also is being used to support biodiversity, rewilding, and forest preservation. Technology can give voice to all the wild creatures we share our home with, and various developing applications hold great promise for environmental initiatives to save our oceans and seas, mountains and plains.
If we optimistically build intelligent machines infused with our highest aspirations, what kind of propitious societal betterment might we expect? The Intelligent Machine Age will give us an opportunity to transform society and design a fairer and more equitable future, not just for a select few, but for all of us—our planet and all the creatures who inhabit it, and the generations that will follow.
If we accept the science and technology, and learn to trust our intelligent machines—machines coded to apply fairness to all living creatures—and if we allow those machines to help equitably run our institutions, humans may be able to get past entrenched tribal and partisan divides and work together for the common good. AI could help us transform our value system, liberating us to prioritize freedom, equity, wellbeing, and bliss, which in turn would support big ideas in humanitarian aid, economic empowerment, and the arts. Ideally, our benevolent and brilliant machines could help us eliminate poverty, unemployment, disease, violence, and the deeply rooted injustices in our human-made and very flawed systems that already affect billions each day. It could also give rise to new, creative, and purposeful career options.
Intelligent technology can magnify the deepest divides and inequalities humans have ever known, or it can level the playing field. Presently, we still have a say in which way this goes, if we can muster the political will, repurpose and rededicate corporate and government institutions, dilute the power of the elite, and empower our collective chorus of voices. For our potent technology to produce inclusive and accessible outcomes, access to information needs to be democratized through promoting transparency and access. If this happens, we will be able to proactively use our own data, histories, and the other extraordinary tools humans have invented for good.
These promised ideals are going to require a global effort. At the heart of it all, intelligent machines can help address the inequities in life. We need to resist the capitalistic impulse to try to maximize gains without paying attention to the negative consequences to society. In doing so, we can help shift our policymakers from arguing over partisan issues to promoting our collective wellbeing.
In the Intelligent Machine Age, free of mundane tasks; with fewer barriers to success for the disadvantaged, and less incentive for excessive personal gain; with more time, dedication, and purpose; in partnership with extraordinarily smart AI, we can choose to improve not just our own lives but the lives of many. We can choose utopia.