Most new technologies tend to see people react with scepticism, suspicion and fear, with some even becoming alarmist and broadcasting extreme negative scenarios up to and including some pending cataclysm. And this has certainly been the case for Artificial Intelligence (AI)!
But the reality is all our technologies are benign and any risk is entirely down to people and what they might do. In the case of AI, the advantages afforded to medical science are the most visible, well-known and radical with dramatic improvements in diagnosis, treatment and outcomes. Lives are being saved, survival rates improved, and the quality of life for millions of people improved. At the other end of the scale, the military are now using AI in robotic weapons for the sole purpose of disabling machines and killing people.
Our job is to weigh up the good and bad versus, the pros and cons. So far the balance sees an overwhelming weight of evidence on the side of AI being of great benefit and very unlikely to realise the dystopian futures favoured by the extreme naysayers. AI is also making huge contributions to the world of commerce, finance and management. They control investments, write reports and reviews, model and predict outcomes, control production systems, conduct the testing of impossibly complex technologies, control our logistic and transport systems. All of which we now depend upon.
At a human dialogue level, AI is enriching lives by providing rapid access to knowledge and solutions to complex problems and situations. However, today’s state of play looks meagre, and a mere “window” into a much broader and powerful future. The wider opportunity, and the essential here is the realisation of sustainable societies and green futures.
So where does this all start? Industry 4.0 might seem unlikely the champion of all human futures but the reality is that it has to be a giant step toward low energy and low material use, with recycling, repurposing and reuse that actually works. What we know for sure is that we can’t power into the future on the basis of polishing our old industries and processes and making them more and more efficient: such a path only slows down the rate of demise and puts back the day of reckoning.
The big change needed hinges on the realisation of new materials that do not occur in nature, they’re shaping and forming into products with a very high-efficiency of ownership and operation during their life. And crucially, the low energy recovery of all materials at the end of life. To do all this Industry 4.0 embraces key technologies: new materials created by biotech and nanotech; their transformation into products by robotics and additive engineering and material programming; the internet of things providing communication between everything along with embedded/ distributed intelligence in all things to record their manufacturing processes, purchase and operational use in preparation for their end of life recovery. But the real key to all this is AI which is already discovering new materials, new structures, whilst solving problems that are away beyond human capability.
Today, we are at the peak of industry 3.0 and we can progress no further: but even so our abilities are already formidable in that we are able to design and build over 2 billion mobile devices of incredible complexity (greater than a Cray 3 SuperComputer) and ship them to global customers working across multiple networks and standards. This ability is also reflected in every aspect of human activity from the manufacture of furniture, domestic appliances, office machinery, vehicles, aircraft and transport systems in general. We have progressively achieved far greater performance with far less materials at lower energy costs than ever before. But this cannot continue without Industry 4.0 and AI.
Although AI might already appear as magic, it is certainly meagre compared to what is to come. In reality, our AI is only on the very first rung of a ladder that ultimately leads to general purpose, and fully sentient machines. Today’s AI progress in a replay of computer history with the task-specific computers of the 1950/60s, and we have to buy task specific AI systems. The current generations of machines are outstanding at pattern recognition and learning, and in the last 12 months the big leap forward has been to see them eclipse their human programmers.
This ability was not expected to be available for at least another decade. What most people don’t really understand is that new technology begets even more powerful technology, and that is certainly the case with AI. Progress will not be linear, slow and predictable, it will be exponential, quantified, and it will take us by surprise. There really is only one big question to ask: can AI rise to the challenges facing our species with increasing shortages water, food, fuel, raw materials and energy; with climate change and rising sea levels, on a planet managed by simple-minded politics and economics? To sustain 7.5 billion people at some equitable standard of living demands greater intelligence, and we can only do it with the help of AI – it really is a ‘fait accompli’ that will change lives, living and work!
By Prof Peter Cochrane, OBE was chief technology officer at British Telecommunications and recently became a Professor of Sentient Systems at the University of Sussex, Ipswich.