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Artificial Intelligence: It’s Real and All Around You

Killer robots. Threatening humanoids. Robo-apocalypses and evil robots taking over the world. For those of us who have seen movies like Blade Runner, I, Robot, and Ex Machina or read articles in the popular press about artificial intelligence (AI), these scary and sinister buzzwords seem to sum up the term ‘AI’ quite well. Unfortunately, artificial intelligence is too often painted as a something scary and negative that will soon steal all of our jobs, or perhaps even worse, completely and totally overpower us.

The reality, however, is much more nuanced and much more rosy and cheery than the media lets on. I can almost guarantee that you are already reaping the rewards and benefits of AI in some shape or form, and you probably do not even realise it! So, what is AI, how is it used, and what is in store for the future?

What is AI?

The Oxford English Dictionary gives us a good starting point for discussing what AI is all about, defining it as ‘the capacity of computers or other machines to exhibit or simulate intelligent behaviour’. In other words, whenever a computer/machine does something without being explicitly programmed to do so, that’s AI.

A trivial, but illustrative example of this would be your average email Spam Filter: Gmail (or whatever email client you use) automatically puts emails into your spam folder. Clearly, Gmail was not told explicitly that such-and-such an email is spam; rather by analysing millions upon millions of emails, it has ‘learned’ on its own (or has been ‘trained’) to do this pattern recognition task on its own. Indeed, artificial intelligence very often centres around pattern recognition, whether that be with self-driving cars, AI-driven medical diagnosis, and more.

Self Driving Trains, Planes, and Automobiles

Would you buy a car which drives itself? If you said ‘no’, you’re not alone: Nearly half of consumers (48%) responding to a recent MIT survey said they’d never buy a car that completely drives itself. People are scared of what they’re not familiar with; that’s just human nature. But, did you know that whenever you fly, you are relying on the magic and mystery of AI to get you to your destination?

Although at this time we still have (and need) pilots to guide planes, the pilots themselves take advantage of auto-pilot features which boils down to a sophisticated network of sensors throughout the airplane which continually assess and adjust the speed, rate of climb, and other factors. Companies, such as Boeing, are looking to take this technology to the next level, completely removing the human pilot from the mix.

Did you know that the average American spends nearly 300 hours a year driving and that 94% of road accidents are caused by human error?  Self-driving cars can help us take advantage of all that lost time and drastically reduce the occurrence of auto accidents. On the ground, most of the big auto companies (from Tesla to Ford to Toyota) are working on making autonomous vehicles a reality, despite obstacles such as governmental regulation and the sometimes unpredictable nature of the road.

Road-ready self-driving cars are not just a thing of the future: this year alone, we have seen Uber’s plans to buy over 20,000 autonomous Volvo SUVs (a super fleet and a super feat!), Waymo (a Google spinoff) has tested self-driving cars on the road without a driver behind the wheel, and the UK government has made promising statements, saying that they plan to begin testing autonomous vehicles on roads as early as next year, with plans to have driverless cars on Britain’s roads by 2021. London is already testing self-driving trains (which are a lot easier to train and maintain than cars) on the Thameslink, which is set to regulate and speed up the service.

AI in Medicine

AI is slated to have a major impact on healthcare. In terms of AI innovation in this space, there are hundreds of companies (from little startups to major corporates) which are changing the face of healthcare across three main areas: diagnostics, treatment, and business/administration. AI healthtech-related technology will also have a significant impact on the industry. Accenture estimates that it will add more than $100B to the industry by 2035.

Adoption for this technology is high: around 86% of US healthcare provider organizations, life science companies, and technology vendors are currently using artificial intelligence technology (according to Tata Consultancy Services), despite the fact that FDA approval can sometimes be a roadblock to speedy adoption. Here are some concrete examples across the three broad areas:

●     Diagnosis: IBM Watson has produced a cancer diagnostic tool which examines a vast database of 20 million research papers and typically makes diagnoses in only 10 minutes.

●     Treatment: MedAware is applying machine learning (a type of AI) to the problem of prescription error, making sure people take the correct medication.

●     Business/Administration: Mendel.ai automates matching cancer patients to clinical trials through personal medical history and genetic analysis.

Food for Thought

How will the rise of robots (domestic and otherwise) affect religion and Judaism in particular? Perhaps the question is better-phrased in the present: how does this influx of innovation affect religious praxis and beliefs? A few months ago, The Guardian reported about Softbank’s humanoid robot ‘Pepper’ that donned robes to provide low-cost funerals complete with live-streaming option in Japan. Is this something which Judaism would condone or sanction?

Although it is unlikely that robots would ever be given full clerical status (i.e. become a rabbi), perhaps they could assist in some key rabbinic functions, such as officiating at funerals, visiting the sick, taking care of the elderly (there are a bunch of such robots already on the market), and more. More controversially, last month, Sophia (a humanoid robot from Hanson Robotics) was granted citizenship by Saudi Arabia. Could we, as Jews, accept robots as converts? What about as citizenships of the State of Israel?

What Does the Future Have in Store?

It is exciting to think about the future of AI, but don’t forget AI is all around you! From Netflix’s recommendation engine telling you what shows to watch to Facebook’s curated newsfeed, algorithms are everywhere. But, what will the future look like in 5, 10, 20 years? We can never really know, but what we can do is make sure AI stays on track and is responsible.

It is true that there are dangers and challenges involved in building AI and automating people out of jobs in the process. However, if we play our cards right and make sure we do not encode our own biases into the systems we create (which is easier said than done), there is a bright future in store for us. As Andrew Ng (founder of Coursera, AI thought leader, and more) said, “Just as electricity transformed almost everything 100 years ago, today I actually have a hard time thinking of an industry that I don’t think AI will transform in the next several years.”