Search for artificial intelligence on the internet and it’s as if you’ve stepped into a sci-fi film. Headlines declaring we should be scared of robots who will not only take our jobs but our freedom as well. Scenarios of AI creations pitted against their human creators, aspiring to ultimately supplant them and rule the Earth. While this makes for an excellent Hollywood blockbuster, I think a reality check is needed. We are nowhere near the creation of a machine that can replicate fully a human’s intellectual capabilities. Currently AI is very limited in that it only specialises in one specific area, such as AlphaGo that can beat the world champion in Go, but that is the only thing it can do.
Despite this AI is still an exceptionally powerful tool, and instead of being afraid of it, why don’t we apply it to societal problems? AI could be a tremendous force for social good if only we would embrace it.
Recently Facebook launched a trial in the US where AI was used to identify user’s at risk of self harm or suicide. The social network has developed algorithms that spot warning signs in a user’s posts and in the comments left by their friends. Posts that contain talk of sadness or pain, as well as responses from friends with phrases such as ‘Are you ok?’ or ‘I’m worried about you’ would be signals. If Facebook identifies an at-risk individual, the company will contact them and suggest ways they can seek help. In addition Facebook has plans to create algorithms that can eventually spot terrorism, violence and bullying. While this technology may still be years away, it could have a profound effect on society.
Research is on-going into how AI can be used for social good. Conservationists are exploring how to use AI to protect wildlife from illegal poaching. The University of South California created the Protection Assistant for Wildlife Security (PAWS), a computer program that combines poaching data with AI modelling to predict the behaviour of hunters in parks in Uganda. PAWS enables the wildlife rangers to effectively patrol a vast area of park with a limited number of officers by targeting areas where poaching is predicted to occur most often.
A study carried out by the University of Vermont and Harvard University, used machine learning tools to identify markers of depression on social media. Instagram posts were analysed for colour analysis, face detection, how often a user posted, number of people in the photo and likes and comments received on each post. While this is only a study it demonstrates how AI could be applied to issues like mental health.
These examples highlight the potential for AI to help in a wide variety of social problems, and to really make a profound difference to everyday lives outside of just technological improvements. However, we need to encourage more discussion about the upside to AI, as it doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom.
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