Let’s Be Smart About Artificial Intelligence

When considering applications of AI, it’s important to take the human response into account.


Technology visionaries no less than Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have called artificial intelligence (AI) the greatest threat facing the future of mankind. But unless we all wind up running for our lives from a “Terminator” killing machine, don’t the benefits of AI far outweigh the downsides?

Looking past purely mathematic calculators from the abacus to Charles Babbage’s difference engine, the first use of AI may very well have been in the first programmable digital computer, invented by Konrad Zuse in Germany in 1941. Considering the timing and location of Zuse’s landmark development, maybe the darker uses of AI aren’t so hard to envision.

Many of us would admit to an over-reliance on our smartphones, which borders on OCD for some people. These pocket-sized wonders that can access any online data and store just about any information and images have relieved us of the need to memorize some common details of our everyday lives. But when your smartphone’s battery loses its charge, remembering a best friend’s phone number can be daunting. This illustrates a downside of delegating much of what we do to AI.

The other side of the coin is having access to too much data, making it troublesome to cull through the information at hand and distill actionable intelligence from it. This data paralysis is often seen as a critical factor in the U.S.’s failure in Vietnam. As explained in the recent documentary “The Vietnam War” by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara sought to manage the U.S. war effort based on statistical data collection and analysis. McNamara’s approach led to mountains of statistics being collected, but the resulting avalanche of Big Data was impossible to organize and apply.

Of course, AI has made amazing technological leaps since then. Today, cognitive engines are being used by government agencies from municipal police departments to the CIA to sift through and perform intricate analyses of the myriad information collected every day, from fingerprints to body-camera images. Similarly, firefighting organizations in California have employed drones to gather on-site information on the recent wildfires in Northern California, including the location of hot spots and overall movement. AI-powered devices can crunch huge amounts of information in a short period of time, providing these government branches with advanced tools such as facial recognition and real-time aerial surveillance. But some would say the phrase “Big Brother is watching” is more cautionary than comforting.

The availability of high-speed, low-latency mobile data allows users to access information quickly without a large power requirement. These connections not only allow us to enjoy real-time streaming of videos and games, they also have made possible new business opportunities such as cloud computing. But this same speedy connectivity also has given rise to practices such as algorithmic trading, the nanosecond-based stock trading capability that can lead to huge, instantaneous swings in people’s savings and investments.

So while AI has changed the way that we live, work and play, it’s still vital that we take into account human emotional response when we use the technology. Just as having too much data without AI’s data-crunching, problem-solving power can be overwhelming, too much online gaming can contribute to sedentary living. When considering the use of AI, it’s important to not go too far.

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