Machines become human
Artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and cognitive computing – technologies enabling machines to sense, comprehend, act, and learn – are set to completely transform the workforce. They might even end up driving one of the most transformative changes the world has ever seen. Capable of either augmenting or replacing human workers, these technologies free people from routine tasks to focus on what they do best – create and innovate.
The technology is now set to go stratospheric. Funding for AI startups increased by almost a factor of 10 within five years, hitting $5 billion in 2016. That year, tech giants spent something like $30 billion on AI technologies. And IBM filed for a record-breaking 2,700 cognitive computing patents.
In healthcare, AI has already been helping physicians reimagine activities ranging from diagnostics to care. IBM’s Watson has proved it can match or exceed human analysis of cancer patients. And, with their acquisition of Nervana Systems, Intel have made a big investment in deep learning for enhanced medical diagnostics. In just a few years, AI systems could be doing everything from managing population health to answering patient questions through digital avatars.
What’s more, AI will add something like $180 billion to the US healthcare economy over the next decade, whether through robot-assisted surgery, virtual nursing, or workflow assistance. So it will end up paying for itself – several times over.
Cognitive use cases invade
AI is everywhere. So much so, we sometimes stop even noticing it. But it’s there, in our voice conversations with Alexa, in Facebook recognizing our friends in our photos, and in Spotify’s personalized playlists. It’s making our homes smarter and our lives easier.
It’s also creating new kinds of human-machine relationships. Domgy is an AI pet that can learn tricks and play music. SpotMini from Boston Dynamics will even take out your trash. Much more than simple toys, these technologies offer huge potential to enhance the way we look after vulnerable patients. Take Paro, for example, the pioneering robotic pet which has been shown to reduce anxiety among dementia sufferers. Hasbro’s robotic cats are also being used with elderly patients in the US.
Chatbots, too, are set to fundamentally change how we deliver therapy. Woebot is a cheeky AI avatar designed by a team from Stanford University. It uses daily chat conversations, mood tracking, curated videos, and word games to help people better manage their mental health – and charges far less than a human therapist to boot.
Likewise, Ada is an AI-powered digital health companion from a London/Berlin startup helping patients work out the possible causes of their symptoms. Its goal: to help people make more informed decisions about their health.
This is just a taste of what’s to come – we’re only beginning to understand the myriad ways AI is going to change our lives.
Machines become the chosen one
Some say AI’s impact on the workforce won’t amount to all that much. They’re dead wrong. While AI has the potential to double annual economic growth rates by 2035, it’s likely to eliminate jobs all around the world as it does so. As much as 47 percent of US workers are at risk of seeing their jobs automated. In Japan, the figure is even higher at 49 percent.
Autonomous transportation is one of the big areas of concern. The White House Council of Economic Advisers thinks as many as 3.1 million US jobs are threatened by self-driving systems. Uber’s driverless trucks will soon become commonplace on highways around the world.
Healthcare won’t be spared in the coming AI revolution either, especially as at least 50 percent of a hospital’s operating revenue is spent on labor. Just as in other fields, AI will automate physicians’ standardized tasks. It might even excel in higher-order functions like bedside care too.
Policymakers are playing catchup
This disruption to labor markets is something policy experts are largely unprepared for. AI is advancing so fast that many can’t keep up. But the stakes are high. A huge number of livelihoods are threatened by the technology. And that creates a potential breeding ground for social strife.
What’s more, even where jobs aren’t completely automated, something like 45 percent of workers’ activities will be completely changed by AI. That calls for a new era of training and upskilling.
There are signs that this process is beginning. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has laid out a set of preliminary guidelines. And Stanford University has launched a One Hundred Year Study on AI to inform debate and provide guidance on the ethical development of the technology.
It’s too early to say precisely how AI will evolve. But one thing’s for sure: technological progress has no reverse gear. New policies are needed to regulate the coming explosion in cognitive capabilities.
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 Executive Office of the President National Science and Technology Council Committee on Technology; “Preparing for the Future of Artificial Intelligence;” published October 2016; available online at https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/whitehouse_files/microsites/ostp/NSTC/preparing_for_the_future_of_ai.pdf