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STEM Explainer: Artificial Intelligence

December 20, 2018

Artificial intelligence. Go on Google Images and the search results are filled with blue graphics of neural networks and sleek, futuristic robots. 


We’ve all heard about AI, but what really is it? How will this technology impact our future lives? And will the impacts be largely positive or negative? 


What is AI?


In general terms, AI refers to non-biological systems (e.g. machines or computer programs) that are able to accomplish complex goals. These systems are able to fulfil tasks that would usually require human intelligence (e.g. problem solving, learning, reasoning) to complete.




AI technology has been developing rapidly over the past few decades, and we can already find AI commonly being used in our daily lives, from virtual assistants like Siri and Alexa to algorithms on Facebook and Instagram that tailor suggested posts to your interests. Self-driving cars are now being tested on roads in places like California, the question-answering computer system IBM Watson is being used in New York to suggest treatment options for lung cancer, and in 2016, Domino’s delivered pizza to a customer by drone in New Zealand, a world-first for commercial food deliveries (if you’re wondering, it was an order for a Peri-Peri Chicken Pizza, and a Chicken and Cranberry Pizza).


 Wow, that delivery was a pizza cake for the delivery man/woman!



The above were all examples of narrow AI (or weak AI), that can only perform a narrow set of tasks. Now, the long-term goal of many researchers is to create general AI (or strong AI), which would be able to perform virtually any task at a level even better than humans, including learning. This is where we might begin to really wonder what our futures will look like. Will humans will control machines, or will machines control us?



How will AI impact our lives?


It goes without saying that this next stage of our technological revolution will have widespread impacts on all aspects of our lives. As students, perhaps what is most important for us to think about now is the effect on jobs.


As machines become increasingly advanced, we can already see that jobs are becoming automated, such as the replacement of cashiers by self-checkout machines at Woolies and Coles. With the prospect of self-driving cars, jobs for taxi drivers and truck drivers are likely to decline, while paralegals and financial analysts will struggle to compete against AI that can process greater volumes of data with more accuracy and speed than humans.


 When you realise that some bits of metal are smarter than you



However, it’s not all doom and gloom. Examples of jobs that are likely to remain are those that require creativity and adaptability, such as authors, artists and actors. Additionally, there will definitely be a boom in STEM-related jobs as a result of our increasing technology use. That’s probably why research company Gartner has estimated that whilst AI will eliminate 1.8 million jobs in 2020, it will actually create 2.3 million new jobs.


Other than the impact of AI on jobs, we also need to address the possibility of an arms race for autonomous weapons (e.g. intelligent robots and drones that could be used in the military). Since humans would no longer be the ones pulling the trigger or actively deciding to attack, would this increase the chances of war? On another note, will cyborg technology that is used to deliberately enhance our human capabilities (e.g. robotic limbs or brain implants to make us smarter) redefine what it means to be ‘human’? Will differing levels of access to such technology further increase the gap of inequality? If we become heavily reliant on AI systems, the consequences of hacking will probably be augmented, so how can we prevent this?


These are just a handful among all the questions and challenges that we need to tackle!


 So much to think about...

So will AI have an overall positive or negative impact on our lives?


Well, that depends on how our society decides to approach AI. AI has the potential to improve our quality of living, but could also lead to greater challenges and harms. Now what’s important is that we focus on research in AI safety so that we can create laws and devise courses of action that will allow us to move forward with AI in a way that will help us better prepare for and prevent potentially negative consequences so that we can enjoy the benefits of AI.


As Elon Musk tweeted: “AI will be the best or worst thing ever for humanity, so let’s get it right.”


 Elon, pretending he already knows where all the answers lie






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