The machines are taking over!

Amanda Riley-Jones

From what we eat to how we care for the elderly, humans are creating technology that will transform our society—but is it for the better?

Artificial intelligence and human behaviour 

Coined in 1956 by computer pioneer John McCarthy, Artificial Intelligence (AI) can be defined as the creation of computer systems that mimic “human” behaviours—such as visual perception, speech recognition and decision-making.

After steam power, mass production and digitalisation, many people are describing the arrival of AI as the fourth industrial revolution. Some say that creating intelligent machines would be one of the biggest achievements in human history and could solve the world’s problems.

However, some high-profile thinkers, including Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates, have warned that machine intelligence could pose a threat to our survival—a persistent theme in films from 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Matrix to Ex Machina.

“It’s tempting to dismiss the notion of highly intelligent machines as mere science fiction,” Hawking and others wrote in an article published in The Huffington Post. “But this would be a mistake, and potentially our worst mistake ever.”

We have the beginnings of AI around us: in computers that predict our preferences, mobile phones that understand voice commands, automated financial transaction systems and (soon) driverless cars. On the horizon, there are big breakthroughs in food production, medicine and healthcare that could bring huge benefits to us all.

Read more: Will the human brain ever be replaced by a computer

 

Feeding a hungry world

Automatic weed sprayer
A rendering of a weed sprayer

One of the biggest problems facing us is that we’ll need to produce twice as much food by 2050. Professor Simon Blackmore, director of the national centre for precision farming at Harper Adams University, Shropshire, says, “We need a paradigm shift—a new system to make crop production more efficient and good for the environment and society.”

The statistics he gives are food for thought. Here in the UK, up to 80 per cent of weeds have become herbicide-resistant and up to 90 per cent of the energy going into cultivation is being used on repairing soil damaged by heavy machinery.

Professor Blackmore predicts that British farms will have mini robots moving up and down the fields, inspecting plants, recognising and lasering weeds, and administering dots of chemicals and fertiliser where needed. Crops will be monitored by aerial and ground vehicles using sensors and hyperspectral vision.

This will bring huge improvements: without soil-compacting tractors, there will be no need for ploughing (reducing CO2 emissions), soil will stay absorbent longer and less fertiliser means healthier waterways.

 

A GP in your pocket

We’re also entering a new era of healthcare. AI can sift through vast amounts of data and knowledge in a way that’s not possible for a human brain. Already, IBM’s supercomputer Watson can draw on troves of data and patient records to provide personalised recommendations on treatment in seconds.

A robot-scientist developed by Ross King, professor of machine intelligence at the University of Manchester, can screen over 10,000 compounds a day in the search for new drugs to beat tropical diseases. Professor King predicts, “Biological systems are so complex that humans cannot understand them without help from computers. I believe that most diseases will be treatable, if not cured, in the next 50–100 years.”

Smart technology will also give us more personalised, democratic health systems. “AI will make healthcare unrecognisable in the next ten years,” declares British-based engineer and entrepreneur Dr Ali Parsa. For £7.99 a month, his smartphone app Babylon enables subscribers to text simple queries and have virtual consultations. Users can add fitness monitors and if they show stress and high blood pressure, for instance, a doctor can proactively make contact.

“I don’t believe AI will replace doctors,” says Dr Parsa, “but it can play a crucial role in assisting with simpler queries, giving doctors more time to focus on complex conditions and patients that need a greater level of care.”

This spring, Babylon is launching in Rwanda where there are only 1.2 doctors to every 20,000 people—but 75 per cent of the population have mobile phones with internet access. “We’re aiming to place immediate, comprehensive and affordable healthcare into the hands of every person on Earth,” says Dr Parsa.

 

Is bionic man the future?

Man wearing a stroke glove
The stroke glove—a type of sophisticated robotics dubbed “powered exoskeleton”—was developed last year to help the rehabilitation of stroke sufferers

Surgical robots, which enable surgeons to operate with precision instruments using robotic arms, have been with us for over a decade. A new generation of sophisticated wearable robotics, or “powered exoskeletons”, will soon be stepping out of the movies and will hopefully help thousands of people paralysed by stroke or spinal-cord damage. The EU-funded AXO-SUIT is being developed to help the elderly or infirm stand up or walk, while another prototype moves a human’s feet to stop them falling.

Scientists are now combining artificial body parts with artificial intelligence—for instance, bionic limbs with onboard processors that sense the environment and even predict the user’s intentions.

But Swiss social psychologist Bertolt Meyer (who himself has an artificial lower arm and hand) has warned of the ethical minefield ahead. Who should have this amazing technology? Injured soldiers? Civilians? Should the rich be able to buy bionic body parts to make them stronger and faster? Could there be a day when humans and robots merge?

 

Caring for the silver generation

Sunflower robot
The Sunflower® robot was created to support independent living for the elderly

Thanks to longer life expectancy, 16 per cent of the global population will be over 65 by 2050. And smart technology is set to help the “silver generation” live independently in our own homes for as long as possible.

Scientists at Sweden’s Orebro University have developed a telepresence robot (think an iPad on a telescopic pole with wheels) that enables family and healthcare professionals to make virtual visits to the house. Here in the UK, an ordinary-looking semi is home to two prototype domestic robots, the adult-size Care-O-bot® and the smaller Sunflower®.

Scientists from Hertfordshire University have set up Robot House to see how human volunteers and robots interact. Kerstin Dautenhahn, professor of artificial intelligence, explains, “The house has an elaborate network of omnidirectional cameras and contact and heat sensors, so the robots know what’s going on anywhere in the house.

When the robot senses the kettle has boiled, it will approach the human to tell her.” The robots can even “see” that a guest has brought flowers and autonomously offer to fetch a vase.

In the future, a robot could notice its human hasn’t had water all day and offer a drink. But there are big ethical issues about privacy and data ownership to address first. Professor Dautenhahn elaborates, “When and how much information should the robot share? A user doesn’t want the robot watching and monitoring every time they have a piece of cake.”

 

Sharing the wealth 

 

“It’s tempting to dismiss the notion of highly intelligent machines as mere science fiction, but this would be a mistake, and potentially our worst mistake ever.”

 

Thirty-five per cent of UK jobs are at risk of automation in the next 20 years, according to the University of Oxford. How will humans fill their time and find a purpose if intelligent machines are doing all the work?

In his book Surviving AI, British author Calum Chace raised the spectre that “homo sapiens may split into two: a handful of gods and then the rest of us”. Many are warning that the economy could collapse unless we find ways to share wealth—perhaps by giving humans a guaranteed income, or profit-sharing schemes that enable people to share ownership of AI and robots.

But Professor Alan Manning from the London School of Economics is more sanguine. “There’s a very long history of believing that new technology will destroy jobs,” he explains. “While there have always been some workers who have lost out, most workers have gained. Almost everybody today is better off than they were 100 years ago because of new technology.”