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Artificial Intelligence: Is It a Brave New World?

October 17, 2016


“Every generation or so,” writes Marc Benioff (@Benioff), CEO of Salesforce, “emerging technologies converge, and something revolutionary occurs. … Now we are on the cusp of another major convergence: big data, machine learning, and increased computing power will soon make artificial intelligence, or AI, ubiquitous.”[1] Benioff’s optimism about artificial intelligence is in marked contrast to some celebrities who have warned humankind is doomed if scientists continue pursuing artificial intelligence breakthroughs. Benioff is not alone in his optimism, Adam C. Uzialko (@auzialko_BND) reports, “[Many] experts say the rumors of a forceful robotic takeover are exaggerated. Instead, they see AI as an indispensable tool for supporting humans in virtually every aspect of life, especially in commercial applications.”[2]


A new study published by Stanford University entitled “Artificial Intelligence and Life in 2030” has stirred a lot of discussion. Leah Burrows (@wordsbyleah) writes, “Artificial intelligence has already transformed our lives — from the autonomous cars on the roads to the robotic vacuums and smart thermostats in our homes. Over the next 15 years, AI technologies will continue to make inroads in nearly every aspect of our lives, from education to entertainment, healthcare to security. The question is, are we ready? Do we have the answers to the legal and ethical quandaries that will certainly arise from the increasing integration of AI into our daily lives? Are we even asking the right questions? Now, a panel of academics and industry thinkers has looked ahead to 2030 to forecast how advances in AI might affect life in a typical North American city and spark discussion about how to ensure the safe, fair and beneficial development of these rapidly developing technologies.”[3] The study’s Executive Summary states:

“Starting from a charge given by the AI100 Standing Committee to consider the likely influences of AI in a typical North American city by the year 2030, the 2015 Study Panel, comprising experts in AI and other relevant areas focused their attention on eight domains they considered most salient: transportation; service robots; healthcare; education; low-resource communities; public safety and security; employment and workplace; and entertainment. In each of these domains, the report both reflects on progress in the past fifteen years and anticipates developments in the coming fifteen years. Though drawing from a common source of research, each domain reflects different AI influences and challenges, such as the difficulty of creating safe and reliable hardware (transportation and service robots), the difficulty of smoothly interacting with human experts (healthcare and education), the challenge of gaining public trust (low-resource communities and public safety and security), the challenge of overcoming fears of marginalizing humans (employment and workplace), and the social and societal risk of diminishing interpersonal interactions (entertainment). The report begins with a reflection on what constitutes Artificial Intelligence, and concludes with recommendations concerning AI-related policy. These recommendations include accruing technical expertise about AI in government and devoting more resources — and removing impediments — to research on the fairness, security, privacy, and societal impacts of AI systems.”

Dr. Mark Hagerott, Chancellor of the North Dakota University System, believes the report has one glaring oversight “the report’s relatively weak coverage of the urban, human security implications of AI.”[4] Hagerott isn’t concerned that some type of killer Skynet AI will be developed, he is more concerned “that AI and smart swarms may profoundly upset security assumptions in modern cities, including many of those in North America.” He explains, “In this age of terror, urban populations may be the ONLY areas in North America where insurgencies or powerful criminal elements may be sustainable, and criminal groups may turn to autonomous machines and AI, perhaps combined with strategies of cyber crime, to hold hostage large swaths of urban communities.” Although Hagerott paints a dark picture of the future, his concerns certainly shouldn’t be overlooked. Despite his concerns, the AI genie is not going back into the lamp and, in the long run, I believe artificial intelligence will have more positive impacts on society than negative ones. That is also the basic conclusion of the Stanford study. The Executive Summary concludes, “Contrary to the more fantastic predictions for AI in the popular press, the Study Panel found no cause for concern that AI is an imminent threat to humankind.”


Peter Stone, a computer scientist at the University of Texas at Austin and chair of the report, told Burrows, “We believe specialized AI applications will become both increasingly common and more useful by 2030, improving our economy and quality of life. But this technology will also create profound challenges, affecting jobs and incomes and other issues that we should begin addressing now to ensure that the benefits of AI are broadly shared.” The predicted ubiquity of artificial intelligence increases the need to address issues associated with AI as soon as possible. Benioff believes artificial intelligence systems must be adopted quickly by businesses if they are survive. He explains, “Given AI’s wide applications, all companies today face an imperative to integrate it into their products and services; otherwise, they will not be able to compete with companies that are using data-collection networks to improve customer experiences and inform business decisions. The next generation of consumers will have grown up with digital technologies and will expect companies to anticipate their needs and provide instant, personalised responses to any query.”


Uzialko concludes, “Whether rosy or rocky, the future is coming quickly, and AI will certainly be a part of it. As this technology develops, the world will see new startups, numerous business applications and consumer uses, as well as the displacement of certain jobs and the creation of entirely new ones. Along with the internet of things, artificial intelligence has the potential to dramatically remake the economy, but its exact impact remains to be seen.” For lots of reasons, we can’t afford to let the future unfold without attempting to ensure that it unfolds in a way that benefits mankind. We cannot stop technological progress but we can help direct it. Benioff concludes, “We can count on technological innovation to continue at an even more rapid pace than in previous generations. AI will become like electrical current — invisible and augmenting almost every part of our lives. Thirty years from now, we will wonder how we ever got along without our seemingly telepathic digital assistants, just as today it’s already hard to imagine going more than a few minutes without checking the 1980s mainframe in one’s pocket.” We indeed may be entering a brave new world, but we need to ensure it is a world to our liking.


[1] Marc Benioff, “Why we are on the cusp of an artificial intelligence revolution,” Financial Review, 14 September 2016.
[2] Adam C. Uzialko, “AI Comes to Work: How Artificial Intelligence Will Transform Business,” Business News Daily, 12 September 2016.
[3] Leah Burrows, “Artificial Intelligence in 2030,” Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, 9 September 2016.
[4] Mark Hagerott, “The problem with the Stanford report’s sanguine estimate on artificial intelligence,” Foreign Policy, 9 September 2016.

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