A few weeks ago I discussed whether AI is finally reaching a tipping point, mostly based on a recently published report, - Artificial Intelligence and Life in 2030. The report was developed by a study panel of AI experts convened by the One Hundred Year Study of AI (AI100), an initiative launched at Stanford University in December, 2014 “to study and anticipate how the effects of artificial intelligence will ripple through every aspect of how people work, live and play.” To better understand the future impact of AI on everyday lives, the panel focused the study on the likely influence of AI on a typical North American city by the year 2030.
The report is organized into three main sections. Section I, - What is Artificial Intelligence?, - describes how researchers and practitioners define AI, as well as the key research trends that will likely influence AI’s future. Section II looks into AI’s overall impact on various sectors of the economy, while the third Section, examines AI issues related to public policy.
My previous discussion was primarily focused on Section I. I’d now like to turn my attention to Section II, - AI by Domain. To help analyze where AI might be heading, the study panel narrowed its explorations to the eight domains most likely to be impacted by AI:
- Transportation. “Autonomous transportation will soon be commonplace and, as most people’s first experience with physically embodied AI systems, will strongly influence the public’s perception of AI.”
- Home/Service Robots. “Over the next fifteen years, coincident advances in mechanical and AI technologies promise to increase the safe and reliable use and utility of home robots in a typical North American city.”
- Healthcare. “AI-based applications could improve health outcomes and quality of life for millions of people in the coming years - but only if they gain the trust of doctors, nurses, and patients.”
- Education. “Though quality education will always require active engagement by human teachers, AI promises to enhance education at all levels, especially by providing personalization at scale.”
- Low-resource communities. “With targeted incentives and funding priorities, AI technologies could help address the needs of low- resource communities.”
- Public safety and security. “One of the more successful uses of AI analytics is in detecting white collar crime, such as credit card fraud. Cybersecurity (including spam) is a widely shared concern.”
- Employment and workplace. “AI will likely replace tasks rather than jobs in the near term, and will also create new kinds of jobs. But the new jobs that will emerge are harder to imagine in advance than the existing jobs that will likely be lost.”
- Entertainment. “AI will increasingly enable entertainment that is more interactive, personalized, and engaging.”
For each of these eight domains, the panel examined the progress made in the past 15 years and anticipated potential developments over the next 15. Let me discuss their findings in a few of these domains.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has defined 5 distinct levels of vehicle automation: no-automation (Level 0); function-specific automation (L1); combined function automation (L2); limited self-driving (L3); and full self-driving (L4).
For a while now, cars have been getting smarter. The auto industry has been adding L1 features to cars for over 40 years, and more advanced L2 features for the past two decades. While some of the features are aimed at user convenience, safety has been far and away the overriding objective.
The NHTSA estimates that there were over 35,000 US traffic deaths in 2015, - the largest such increase in decades. The number of people injured in 2015 also went up to over 2.4 million people. 94 percent of these crashes can be tied back to various kinds of human error. AI research on vehicle automation is very important because the stakes are so high. These technologies will significantly improve the overall safety of cars and help reduce our large numbers of traffic accidents, deaths and serious injuries.
When are we likely to see self-driven vehicles coursing along our streets and highways? “It is not yet clear how much better self-driving cars need to become to encourage broad acceptance,…” notes the AI100 report. “But if future self-driving cars are adopted with the predicted speed, and they exceed human-level performance in driving, other significant societal changes will follow.”
“Self-driving cars will eliminate one of the biggest causes of accidental death and injury in United States, and lengthen people’s life expectancy. On average, a commuter in US spends twenty-five minutes driving each way. With self-driving car technology, people will have more time to work or entertain themselves during their commutes. And the increased comfort and decreased cognitive load with self-driving cars and shared transportation may affect where people choose to live.”
The Roomba home robot was first introduced in 2012 by iRobot. Since then, the company has sold over 15 million home robots around the world for a variety of applications including cleaning, scrubbing and mopping floors, and cleaning pools and gutters. Home robots are available from a number of companies for similar, narrowly defined applications.
“Early expectations that many new applications would be found for home robots have not materialized. Robot vacuum cleaners are restricted to localized flat areas, while real homes have lots of single steps, and often staircases; there has been very little research on robot mobility inside real homes. Hardware platforms remain challenging to build, and there are few applications that people want enough to buy. Perceptual algorithms for functions such as image labeling, and 3D object recognition, while common at AI conferences, are still only a few years into development as products.”
But, the future looks a lot more promising. In a 2015 Foreign Affairs article, - The Robots Are Coming: How Technological Breakthroughs Will Transform Everyday Life, - MIT professor Daniela Rus wrote that “Robots have the potential to greatly improve the quality of our lives at home, at work, and at play. Customized robots working alongside people will create new jobs, improve the quality of existing jobs, and give people more time to focus on what they find interesting, important, and exciting… By working together, robots and humans can augment and complement each other’s skills.”
In a 2014 interview, Professor Rus said that in 10 to 15 years she expects robots to be as commonplace as smartphones, “with personal robots that can help with everything from doing search-and-rescue operations to folding the laundry.” Her MIT research group, the Distributed Robotics Lab, has built robots that can “tend a garden, bake cookies from scratch, cut a birthday cake, fly in swarms without human aid to perform surveillance functions, and dance with humans.”
“Still, there are significant gaps between where robots are today and the promise of a future era of pervasive robotics, when robots will be integrated into the fabric of daily life, becoming as common as computers and smartphones are today, performing many specialized tasks, and often operating side by side with humans,” added Rus. “Current research aims to improve the way robots are made, how they move themselves and manipulate objects, how they reason, how they perceive their environments, and how they cooperate with one another and with humans.”
Employment and Workplace
People have long worried about the impact of technology on employment. But each time those fears arose in the past, technology innovations ended up creating more jobs than they destroyed, causing the majority of economists to confidently wave away such automation anxieties. Automation fears have understandably accelerated in recent years, as our increasingly smart machines are now being applied to activities requiring intelligence and cognitive capabilities that not long ago were viewed as the exclusive domain of humans.
It’s ironic that after years of frustration with AI’s missed promises, experts worry that now that its mighty power is upon us, we still don’t know how to properly deploy it. AI advances might well lead to widespread economic dislocation. The concerns surrounding AI’s long term impact on jobs may well be in a class by themselves. Like no other technology, AI forces us to explore the very boundaries between machines and humans.
“While AI technologies are likely to have a profound future impact on employment and workplace trends in a typical North American city, it is difficult to accurately assess current impacts, positive or negative…” says the AI100 report. “There are clear examples of industries in which digital technologies have had profound impacts, good and bad,… Understanding these changes should provide insights into how AI will affect future labor demand, including the shift in skill demands…”
“To be successful, AI innovations will need to overcome understandable human fears of being marginalized. AI will likely replace tasks rather than jobs in the near term, and will also create new kinds of jobs. But the new jobs that will emerge are harder to imagine in advance than the existing jobs that will likely be lost.”
Overall, the AI300 report concludes that “Application design and policy decisions made in the near term are likely to have long-lasting influences on the nature and directions of such developments, making it important for AI researchers, developers, social scientists, and policymakers to balance the imperative to innovate with mechanisms to ensure that AI’s economic and social benefits are broadly shared across society… the technologies emerging from the field could profoundly transform society for the better in the coming decades.”