By Morgen Henderson
Futurists and technology advocates, including Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and Bill Gates, often warn about the imminent dangers artificial intelligence poses to humanity. Many of these soothsayers ask we harken their cries of existential risk unless we wish to chance an intelligence explosion. They claim such an event, often dubbed the Singularity, could create a superintelligent computer, leading to human enslavement via the likes of Skynet, from the Terminator franchise, or HAL 9000, from Space Odyssey.
It’s crucial that we – as a society – discuss the possible ramifications of AI while computer scientists actively research and develop artificial intelligence systems. Especially considering the ease at which companies and individuals are employing chatbot and AI technology. In these discussions, we must balance our fear of rogue AI with the tangible benefits that responsible AI use can bring to society within the next decade.
Today, autonomous features on Tesla cars have decreased road accidents by 40 percent, AI in healthcare will provide $50 million in savings by 2021, and Google’s voice assistant makes and screens phone calls for users. There are many other scenarios where AI is proving to be more helpful than harmful. Let’s look at three of them.
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AI Provides Therapy to Underserved Communities
Decades of mental health stigmas, poor healthcare access, and prohibitive treatment costs have plummeted the United States into a mental health epidemic. Nearly one in five American adults has a mental illness, and one in eight Americans older than 12 years old is prescribed an antidepressant. Numbing our pain with drugs has become so commonplace that roughly 115 people die daily from opioid abuse, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse.
Amplifying the issues, states throughout the country face a critical shortfall in psychiatrists and other mental health professionals, with more than 60 percent of U.S. counties lacking a psychiatrist, according to an article published by Harvard Business Review.
Artificial intelligence has the potential to fill that gap and ease the mental and emotional suffering that millions of people go through every day. Currently, AI has two promising pathways to provide mental healthcare: supplementing healthcare from a human psychiatrist and offering healthcare as an AI-driven online or mobile service.
In the Harvard Business Review article, the author discusses a new counseling company, Ginger.io, and how it combines virtual mental health services with powerful insights from data-driven AI to provide therapy to anyone with a smartphone. Unlike chatbot-based healthcare services such as T.E.V.I., which is actively being developed by UCLA researchers, Ginger.io patients interact with therapists, specialists, and psychologists using video and text-based sessions. Together, patients and providers develop a detailed treatment plan that includes actionable goals and resources. Afterward, the Ginger.io AI analyses the patient’s real-time behavior and mannerisms through a mobile app and then combines that information with patients’ past mental health assessments.
The AI’s data collection allows psychiatrists to easily track patients’ progress, identify times of crisis, and modify the individualized care plans to provide better treatment and more beneficial outcomes.
A year-long survey of Ginger.io users discovered that 72 percent of patients reported clinically significant improvements in their depression symptoms, according to the HBR article. That percentage is a drastic improvement. Allowing more people to access AI-driven mental health resources can simultaneously improve lives and the economy.
AI Drivers Can Save Up to 36,000 Lives Annually
Automated, driverless cars are among the most popular scenarios to showcase the benefits of trusting emerging AI technologies. And for a good reason. In February, the National Safety Council estimated that in 2017, 40,100 people were killed in car accidents. This estimate is about a one percent decrease from the Council’s 2016 estimate, but a six percent increase from 2015.
The NSC and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration attribute these in automobile deaths to distracted driving, speeding, and people who still don’t use seat belts.
Roughly 90 percent of car accidents involve human error, so it makes sense to remove humans from the driving equation. Unlike humans, AI cars don’t need to sleep; they won’t get distracted by a text message or stop observing the road to change playlists; they won’t speed or tailgate; and they don’t get road rage.
Eliminating all vehicular fatalities and injuries isn’t feasible, but widespread autonomous car adoption is predicted to eventually prevent up to 90 percent of traffic accidents and could save $190 billion annually in damages and health care costs in the United States.
Although the automobile industry is making meaningful progress with driverless cars, most manufacturers haven’t achieved the NHTSA’s five-stage definition of autonomy. The agency defines stage five vehicular autonomy as “an Automated Driving System on the vehicle can do all the driving in all circumstances. The human occupants are just passengers and need never be involved in driving.”
Only Waymo’s driverless taxi service is reported to truly achieve this level of autonomy. Most new vehicles are stuck between stages two and three, where the vehicle has certain autonomous safety features, like pedestrian avoidance and blind spot monitoring, and under some circumstances, the car can control both steering and accelerating/ braking simultaneously.
Yet given time and money, more vehicles will reach stage five and save lives. Consumers simply must trust the technology and then embrace this powerful change. Because without it, deadly accidents will continue to happen. Today, distracted driving will kill another nine people in the United States, according to the CDC. This cycle is vicious and unrelenting. But finally, the solution to this chaos is within our grasp.
AI Improves Quality of Life for People with Disabilities
Nearly 40 million Americans live with some form of disability, 20 million of whom report having serious difficulty with personal mobility. Providing mobility via autonomous cars, such as Waymo vans, to people who can’t drive or use public transportation allows them to take advantage of new employment opportunities, engage in their communities and be more self-reliant.
Reducing transportation obstacles for individuals with disabilities provides new employment opportunities to nearly 2 million people, and saves $19 billion annually in healthcare costs from missed medical appointments, according to the Ruderman Family Foundation.
Improved transportation is only one benefit people with disabilities can reap from artificial intelligence or “smart” devices. Smart home appliances, such as Google Home, Nest or Alexa, can also aid people with vision loss and physical limitations by simplifying their daily lives. Smart home systems can be used to verbally control lighting throughout a home, lock or unlock doors, adjust temperatures, research information, read and send text messages, make phone calls, and more. Several smart home systems can be programmed to learn a person’s habits and automatically adjust tasks to anticipate the person’s needs.
AI is also able to give a clear, coherent voice to people with speech impediments. Voiceitt is an example. The app helps people affected by cerebral palsy, Parkinson’s, Down syndrome, and other chronic health conditions. Voiceitt learns a person’s pronunciation habits and difficulties over time. Afterward, it uses an algorithm to normalize abnormalities in exportable audio and text, allowing people to converse more naturally.
If our relationship with artificial intelligence was a mountain, researchers have barely reached base camp. We have a long, arduous path ahead to crest the summit. Although the journey is barely underway, we have already made significant strides toward benefiting society with AI. And best of all, we’re staring down more alluring promises of substantial gains with these accomplishments in the next few years.
About the author
Morgen lives in the Silicon Slopes of Salt Lake City. She loves learning about technology and science. In her spare time, you can find her baking or traveling the globe.