AI: A benefit or harm?
14 May 2021
Credit: NTT Data
According to a survey from the University of Cambridge, 51% of citizens in England express “[higher] levels of concern…than…excitement” regarding the consequences of artificial intelligence (AI), and a staggering 35% further believe that AI will precipitate the demise of the human race as a whole (Cave et al. 336). However, despite these ostensibly disheartening findings, the researchers also noted that more than half of the survey’s participants were unable to provide a wholly inclusive definition of AI, with respondents especially tending to overlook the technology’s potential applications in humanitarianism and philanthropy. Indeed, the modern sentiment surrounding AI has contorted into one of mechanical supremacy that deviates far from the truth and regrettably misconstrues the genuine potential of this revolutionary technology.
John McCarthy, a computer scientist regarded to be a founding father of AI, defined the discipline as “the science and engineering of making intelligent machines” (McCarthy 2). While popular culture has effectively channeled this definition into sensationalized images of horror and destruction, philosopher Sean Dorrance Kelly has stated that the inherent, fundamental level of programming in these machines prevents them from innovating at the rate of the vastly more complex human brain, a neurological system whose circuitry cannot be replicated through mere algorithms (Kelly). To create an AI-based machine that can think and be self-aware like a human, then, is impossible from a practical standpoint.
That being said, it becomes far more enriching to investigate the capabilities of AI, rather than the technology’s unfounded limitations. At its core, AI is nothing more than a framework to run programs installed by developers. The objectives can be as mundane as alphabetical arrangements or as complex as chess optimization. In either case, companies like Microsoft, Apple, and Amazon have already begun implementing AI-assisted programs into their logistical operations and are experiencing lower production costs and increased consumer utility as a result (Brovold). The nascent field of AI is evolving, and as it does, it continues to prove its worth in human affairs. The technology’s empirical success in alleviating problems like decentralizing access to basic human commodities, protecting the environment, and improving mental health confirms that the benefits of AI outweigh the harms.
There are three types of AI to consider before evaluating its benefits and harms: artificial narrow intelligence (ANI), artificial general intelligence (AGI), and artificial superintelligence (ASI). ANI is often implemented into everyday technology to complete singular, specified tasks such as speech recognition and voice assistance in home appliances like Alexa or Siri. AGI is an emerging field that programs machines to be just as intelligent as humans, and ASI is a hypothetical area of artificial intelligence that focuses on building machines to become self-aware and surpass the capabilities of humans. The repercussions of AGI and ASI remain solely based on speculation at this time, but the demonstrated potential of ANI has been well-documented and will be further examined in this paper.
According to psychologist Abraham Maslow, self-actualization of human beings is contingent on the attainment of four preceding developmental needs: physiological needs, reliable sheltering and employment, love and belonging, and self-esteem. Kurt Goldstein, a renowned neurologist, further stated that achieving self-actualization is the ultimate goal every individual will innately work toward (Perera). Thus, it becomes worthwhile to investigate the role ANI can play in each stage of human development since the technology exhibits vast potential to improve the lives of countless people.
Clean drinking water is one of the most fundamental necessities required to sustain a human being. Without it, a human can only survive for three days on average, so it becomes imperative that every individual across the globe has access to clean water in order to uphold standard bodily processes (Johnson). Unfortunately, however, more than 2 billion people around the world drink water from a source contaminated with feces (“Drinking-Water”). With such contamination responsible for approximately 485,000 diarrheal deaths annually, several companies like Microsoft and AnyTech have taken the initiative to develop ANI programs that can detect harmful microorganisms in drinking water within seconds, far more expedient than the several days it would take when done by a human (“Can AI Help”). Rapid identification of contaminants invariably lowers the cost of clean water production, enabling companies like AnyTech to spur efforts for overseas expansion, delivering water to a tremendous population of people in need. With less people ill, more people will be one step closer to securing their basic physiological needs.
Following clean water, safe food becomes the most pressing necessity to provide for people. Fortunately, ANI has shown promise in supporting this cause by assisting farms to improve their food quality and quantity through controlling pesticide use. Farmers’ tendency to apply pesticides over massive areas of land for only a select number of unwanted plants has long been an issue that causes 200,000 worldwide deaths every year and has been linked to illnesses such as cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease (Lynn; “UN Human Rights Experts”). Moreover, the overuse of pesticides reportedly drains $43 billion from U.S. and Canadian agricultural markets every year (“WSSA”). To resolve these problems, Blue River Technology, a company specializing in technology for sustainable agriculture, programmed an ANI-integrated robot that can delineate the quantity of pesticide to apply to certain species of weeds, significantly reducing the chance of chemical-induced toxicity in crops. The farms implementing these ANI robots have reduced the volume of chemicals applied to crops by 80% and decreased costs spent on herbicides by 90% (Blue River Technology). With costs trimmed and overall crop quality improved, the number of deaths and diseases caused by pesticide poisoning will be lowered due to ANI’s capabilities.
To assist starving populations around the world, technology-based company Progressive Environmental & Agricultural Technologies (PEAT) implemented ANI to create Plantix, a smartphone application that can detect chemical imbalances in soil and suggest corresponding farming techniques to correct them. Following a number of real-world trials, Plantix reported a 95% accuracy in identifying soil deficiencies and defects (Faggella). While all countries can benefit enormously from this innovation, impoverished nations would particularly see improved food supply since ANI would be able to greatly assist them in attaining crop yields needed to support their growing populations, a feat currently unachievable through simple farmland expansion (“How to Feed the World”). ANI is, therefore, a powerful tool farmers can integrate into their work to reduce costs, ultimately lowering starvation and malnourishment rates among growing populations around the world. In doing so, ANI helps people shift their focus from seeking basic necessities for survival to seeking security.
As physiological needs are met, more people will move onto the next phase in their development: securing health, physical safety, and jobs. According to the American Cancer Society, half of modern mammograms are misdiagnosed, resulting in 1 out of every 2 women receiving incorrect indications of potential breast cancer, while an ANI-implemented mammogram reports a 99% accuracy in interpreting scans and is 30 times more efficient when reviewing the mammogram to make a diagnosis (Griffiths). This not only reduces the need for unnecessary biopsies but also saves time and money for patients. Moreover, in any given medical operation, ANI can suggest the most reliable surgical techniques to reduce risk of error for a patient. For example, medical device company Microsure has developed an ANI-integrated surgical robot that conducts precise operations, increasing accuracy and limiting the risk placed on the patient’s life (Britt). A 2016 report from market research firm Frost & Sullivan predicted that ANI-implemented healthcare applications have the potential to improve the accuracy and efficiency of disease treatment by 30 to 40%, while still reducing these service costs by 50% (“From $600 M to $6 Billion”). By effectively lowering health insurance costs and operational costs for doctors, ANI provides democratizing opportunities for underprivileged patients as well, a phenomenon deemed implausible before the arrival of AI. From diagnosing life-threatening diseases to performing life-preserving surgeries, ANI has demonstrated a remarkable degree of versatility, accuracy, and applicability in the field of medicine.
Human security not only encompasses reliable access to healthcare but also physical safety within a shelter or home. Indeed, habitation in a protected environment is universally desired; however, in impoverished countries especially susceptible to natural disasters, physical safety is rarely guaranteed. Unexpected, violent disasters displace 14 million people globally and cost the United States $42.8 billion each year (Vetrhus; Smith). However, management consulting firm McKinsey & Company has offered a viable solution. Named Noble Intelligence, the company’s ANI is designed to detect natural disasters quickly and accurately, enabling city planners to devise the most reliable plan of evacuation and recovery before and after disasters strike (Heteren). For those who are already experiencing emergencies, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) created ANI program Incidents Data to analyze images from social media to more accurately identify oncoming and ongoing disasters, which can be used to locate people in need of help (Incidents Dataset; Imran). Had ANI been utilized during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, many more of the 34,000 parents affected would not have been separated from their children, as rescue workers would have had more time to evacuate them as a family (“Reunification”). Clearly, ANI exhibits capabilities that can revolutionize the manner through which environmental disasters are managed, before, during, and after they strike.
Beyond natural disasters, ANI has even begun contributing to environmental security by tackling concerns regarding global warming. By 2100, rising sea levels are projected to place 630 million lives at risk (Kulp and Strauss). In an effort to remedy this dire situation, companies such as Carbon Chain and Carbon Tracker have created ANI systems to identify the major sources of carbon production and generate recommended emissions cuts for each respective entity. For example, in 2019, Carbon Tracker calculated that major oil and gas producers needed to cut production collectively by 35% by 2040 in order to prevent global temperatures from rising above the limit set by the Paris Agreement. It also tailored the emissions objectives to each individual company within the sector, associating an 85% suggested reduction with oil producer ConocoPhillips, while only 10% with Shell (“Oil Majors”). If ANI’s recommendations were to be integrated into multilateral environmental decisions, ANI would be projected to generate $5.2 trillion for the global economy, reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by 4% (the amount produced by Australia, Canada, and Japan collectively), and create 38.2 million jobs worldwide by 2030 (Herweijer et al.). With such promising figures, ANI demonstrates a way humans can tackle climate change concerns and live in a safe, reliable environment.
Within this stable space, people will begin to seek job security as their next objective. According to the World Economic Forum, 75 million jobs will be lost, but 133 million jobs will be created due to ANI from 2018 to 2022, resulting in an estimated 60 million new jobs (“The Future of Jobs”). New positions like ANI algorithm developer, machine-learning engineer, and ANI manager have already been created, with each exhibiting a 74% increase in popularity from 2014 to 2019 (McCormick). In addition to such new occupations, ANI is expected to increase the need for pre-existing ones. For example, although the assembly line initially replaced the jobs humans used to hold in automobile manufacturing, the number of workers in the sector nonetheless rose from 1,655 to 18,892 between 1909 and 1915 due to an increased demand for work in more nuanced tasks like troubleshooting malfunctions and customer service. Productivity then tripled from 8 cars per worker to 21, causing the price of a car to decrease by more than half, the demand to soar, and worker wages to more than double (Manyika et al.). Other sectors of the US economy that adopted this new production mechanism benefited as well with increases in productivity. The integration of AI into the workforce is predicted to follow a similar pattern, steadily replacing jobs while continuing to produce more, much like all technological innovations have done in the past (Gumbel et al.). Hence, the workforce will not only experience a significant net gain in jobs but will also witness ANI’s favorable integration into pre-existing jobs as well. These abilities of ANI can then be used as a method of ensuring order and stability in people’s lives as they progress through their need for safety.
By automating repetitive tasks that require little intuition, ANI provides humans with more time to spend on activities that they enjoy and that can exercise their minds. This is especially important because repetitive, unchallenging jobs can produce several neurocognitive illnesses in workers (Gajewski et al.). Avoiding such tasks is not only important for one’s mental health but also for one’s physical safety, as many repetitive tasks like lifting and loading often lead to workplace injuries (Jackson). With ANI handling such jobs, productivity increases, as does the possibility of lowering the hours in a working week. An experiment by New Zealand company Perpetual Guardian exhibited that lowering the working week from five days to four not only helped balance the workers’ personal and work lives but also reduced the amount of distractions during their work day, thus enhancing job performance (Peters). Consistent with this experiment, Dr. Sarah D. Pressman, a professor of psychology, found that increased leisurely time allowed for an overall improvement in physical health, life satisfaction, and social support among Pittsburgh citizens (Pressman et al.). Therefore, by granting workers with more time to focus on achieving their personal and professional career goals, ANI enhances the quality of their lives, providing a greater opportunity for them to reach self-actualization.
Because ANI must be given large amounts of data in order to analyze and optimize tasks, it follows that 69% of US citizens find the technology invasive (“Creepy or Cool”). Consumers are usually aware that data is being collected about them and that they are benefitting from the information retailers like Stitch Fix learn; however, their concern rests more with retailers being transparent about the information they collect (Bpyne). In other words, they want to know what information about them will be collected and how it will be used so that once informed, they can decide whether or not to share their personal information. If retailers were to incorporate this practice into their businesses, consumers would be more likely to cooperate since it would provide them with the security of knowing exactly what their information will be used for.
Beyond localized experience improvement, international technological organizations have also begun seeking legislation to fortify user privacy, a promising trend that will ideally mollify concerns about the new technology. Several organizations have already started drafting legislation to combat such concerns. The European Union, for example, created the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), and the Japanese government developed the Data Free Flow with Trust (DFFT). These regulations enforce uniform rules within and across countries that inform citizens and businesses about how their data is being protected and shared. As a result of these regulations, 62% of UK consumers felt more confident in sharing their personal information with companies, and 60% found these regulations to be personally meaningful (Aldighieri 4). Thus, transparency between the consumers and the companies that utilize ANI for data collection is integral in forging a path toward mutual trust.
Despite the benefits ANI has produced thus far, AGI and ASI are fields that suggest a possible takeover of the human race. Any new innovation faces initial skepticism, but humans are problem-solvers (Overly). Just as the European Union and Japan responded to privacy concerns, humans have the ability to adjust to consequences that may arise with AGI and ASI. What is crucial in this process is that people understand what exactly AI is and be aware of what it realistically can and cannot do (“What Consumers Really Think”). Armed with these facts, people can make informed decisions that are not influenced by fiction. Awareness, trust, and cooperation, then, are vital to appreciating the field of AI and the contributions it can give to humans.
Through considering the diverse range of applications for AI in the real-world, it becomes clear that the technology’s benefits outweigh its harms. The standing harms of this technology appear to be hinged on irrational sentiment rather than objective evaluation, and resultantly, a regrettable degree of fear and anxiety has become attached to such a promising innovation. As has happened every time in the past when a new technology was introduced, people become fearful of the harms that may come. But the outcome of each of these technological revolutions proves that in the long run, the benefits of each technology outweigh the harms because humans know how to learn and adjust to the changes that come with it, whether it be in skills or financial costs. Furthermore, AI has proven to be a viable option in providing the physiological and safety needs for people so that each person can have more opportunities to develop into the individual he or she wants to be. Such a philanthropic and humanitarian contribution must be recognized so that humans can evolve with AI to create a world characterized by positive growth and trust.
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