Hollywood and popular culture describe artificial intelligence as an unimaginable, futuristic technology that cleverly imitates human behavior to the point that questions the line between human and machine.
While artificial intelligence has the potential to progress to this point, this fantastic view of this rapidly progressing technology is rather narrow in scope. It focuses on grand applications of AI rather than on the subtler ways it could improve lives. These are the ways that AI is affecting us today.
What is artificial intelligence? Is it all just robots and sci-fi, or has it already quietly invaded everyday life? These questions, as basic as they are, remain unanswered to some extent. Still, it’s possible to describe AI as we know it now and as it has the potential to be in the future.
Today’s Artificial Intelligence
Before diving into what artificial intelligence means for humans, it’s important to define what is meant by AI carefully.
Many people confuse AI and machine learning and use them interchangeably. While they come from a similar strand of thought, they do differ:
Artificial Intelligence vs Machine Learning
Artificial intelligence refers to machines carrying out activities that humans would otherwise do. They learn and apply what they learn in the real world. The most fanciful example is that of self-driving cars.
Machine learning focuses on data. The premise encourages people to hand over bulk data to machines and let those computers learn on their own.
What Kind of AI Are We Using?
The artificial intelligence in use today Is known as weak AI or narrow AI. The term describes its use: current AI performs a single, narrow task at any one time. It can’t take on one task and then apply its knowledge to a completely different task as humans do.
For example, Google Translate offers a photo option. Take a picture of the sign or paper you need to be translated, and Google will translate for you using artificial intelligence to read.
However, Google Translate will not then apply the translation to another task. The road stops there.
Additionally, facial recognition software can only recognize faces. It can’t be used in an Uber self-driving car.
Weak AI won’t always remain that way. Expanding it to a strong AI is highly prioritized by researchers around the world. Strong AI is, as you might imagine, an AI that works more generally and more like the human brain by allowing AI to take on a multitude of tasks and learn new skills when required.
In essence, weak Ai might beat you in a video game. Strong AI could outperform humans in every skill sphere of their lives.
In fact, strong, or general, AI is on its way. The University of Washington is collaborating with the Allen Institute for AI on a general AI project called A Very Good Girl. As you might imagine, A Very Good Girl is a dog.
The project considers the fact that AI can presently read street signs and recognize faces. Yet, it lacks the mental acuity to do multiple things at once or even “understand.” Indeed, while AI can simulate perception by identifying objects and selecting them, but it doesn’t necessarily understand what it is doing or why.
Dogs were a perfect choice, according to the researchers, to test the boundaries of AI. According to the project team, dogs are intelligent and complex but “their goals and motivations are often unknown a priori.” Dogs make intelligent choices based on their own agency, but humans don’t know what the dog thinks when they do that.
The project relies on complex data because dogs don’t just walk: they move their legs, avoid obstacles and hazards, and complete a trajectory all while smelling, seeing, and using their other sense in the world around them.
Ideally, the dog model, A Very Good Girl, must learn that when it walks from Point A to Point B, it must do so on the grass and look out for hazards like automobiles, bicycles or lawnmowers. It has to learn that it can’t walk on the tree or jump over a car – and it needs to learn to stay off the furniture (if that rule applies – no judgment).
Is Artificial Intelligence a Threat?
Some pretty intelligent people object to AI and worry about the impact it will have on societies as well as on the human race. Elon Musk is reportedly terrified of it, and so was the late physicist Stephen Hawking.
One of the primary worries lies in what’s called the singularity.
The singularity is a point in human history when artificial intelligence surpasses human intelligence. In theory, the singularity will be a milestone where AI doesn’t only surpass humans but continues to grow smarter every single day, perhaps even infinitely so.
There are some legitimate questions about the singularity. The primary question lies in what it means to be human when humans are no longer the most intelligent beings on the planet. A secondary, perhaps more foreboding question, is whether humans can remain in control of AI once it surpasses us.
Will we control computers, or will they control us? Is AI a threat to human society and even civilization?
Two Things You Should Be Concerned About
While these issues are interesting to think about, they aren’t the most pressing issues at the moment. We may not even need to face these questions in our lifetimes – if we ever see them – because there’s no current path from narrow AI to general AI.
While the largest, more esoteric questions are mostly unimportant for now, there are still questions about safety, primarily in areas where AI threatens to take over operations previously performed exclusively by humans.
There are two important things to think about as narrow AI continues to extend into our lives.
The first issue is jobs. While some write off the issue of unemployment as merely another revolution in the workforce, there are some reasons for concern.
AI is predicted to create mass unemployment as machines take over tasks presently performed by people just like you. Automation currently threatens as many as 800 million jobs around the globe by 2030. While previous transitions like the industrial revolution also made jobs irrelevant, it replaced them with other jobs.
If AI destroys 800 million jobs, it’s unclear what, if anything, will replace them, particularly at a rapid pace.
The second issue is one of safety. Humans make decisions that have consequences and live with them. While machines make decisions based on data, it’s unclear how the decisions will be made, particularly because the code for AI is often proprietary, meaning those outside of development won’t understand it.
Self-driving cars are a great example. If a human encounters a child playing in the street and has to decide whether to save the driver or the pedestrian, the person driving will decide who to protect. These decisions are written into the code of AI: a code could cause the driver to mow down a child that unexpectedly runs out into the street because it’s designed to protect the passengers of the car first.
Both of these issues aren’t yet realities, but they are much closer to become real ethical, legal, and economic problems than the singularity. And they’re worth considering as AI continues to grow.
Applying AI to Your Everyday Life – Today
Are you ready to start using AI to make your life easier today?
Start with personal digital assistants.
These products come in a standalone form as well as built into common applications like Google Photos. For example, Google Photos uses AI deep learning techniques to recognize the faces in your photos and group them accordingly.
Digital assistants like Alexa, Siri, Google Assistant, and Cortana are a good place to start. These assistants take on information or commands and use it to either complete a task or provide you with more information.
You can also use AI and the Internet of Things to transform your house into a smart home using smart home devices.
Smart home devices automate even the most mundane parts of running a house. They control HVAC systems, sprinklers, alarms, and stereo systems. Of course, setting up a smart house is more complicated than installing a personal assistant, and you’ll have to think about things like wi-fi speeds, security, and compatibility between devices. But simpler options like the Amazon Echo allow you to dive in without drowning in a sea of connectivity.
AI Isn’t Coming – It’s Here
Artificial intelligence is already impacting your everyday life in ways you might not expect. Embracing it can tremendously improve our lives by eliminating tasks that machines can do faster and more efficiently thereby allowing us to focus on things that matter most to us.
There are still many questions surrounding AI. Some are more imminent than others, but all will challenge us in ways we may not yet be prepared for yet.
Are you already making use of AI at home or work? Share your stories in the comments below.