Learning to Love Artificial Intelligence

Learning to Love Artificial IntelligenceIn March, I attended the WSJ CIO conference in San Francisco and the topic of Artificial Intelligence (AI) ignited the most passionate discussions. I was surprised how many people were in the Steve Wozniak (“the future is scary and very bad for people”) and Elon Musk (“the biggest existential threat to mankind”) camps.

I think it’s time to stop worrying and learn to love artificial intelligence. AI is coming whether you like it or not – and I believe it will have huge and amazing benefits for human kind.

Consider its impact on medicine. In his fascinating book, The Undoing Project, Michael Lewis describes an experiment in which some 20 doctors – all of them cancer specialists – independently evaluated a series of about 30 MRI images for the presence of cancer. In turned out the experts mostly agreed which images showed cancer and which ones didn’t.

Then the order of the images was shuffled and resubmitted for evaluation and guess what? The same experts came up with different diagnoses for the same images! The doctors suffered from the all-too-human psychological bias related to pattern recognition. Specifically, their judgment was skewed by the three previous images they had viewed, resulting in embarrassing (but thankfully not fatal) misdiagnoses.

Fortunately, machines don’t have psychological biases. To prove this, the experimenters asked the doctors to teach a group software developers how to spot cancer in an MRI image. The developers then took that data and created an AI program that did exactly that and it diagnosed cancer more accurately than the oncologists!

Of course, you could point out that doctors’ jobs could be put at risk by the rise of intelligent machines – and you would be right. But ask yourself – if you were in a small village on an island for vacation and you needed an emergency diagnosis from the local doctor (who also treats the local animals) would you want him doing it or a machine? Personally, I would want the doctor to treat me after the machine spit out the correct diagnosis.

The same is true for many other human endeavors. It’s estimated that at least half the trucks in the U.S. will eventually be self-driving. That’s bad news if you’re a truck driver. But look down the road and you will see the economic opportunities of transporting things around the country labor-free and the corresponding boost to the overall economy.

In the future, we may discover that the best and highest value use for humans won’t be in doing repetitive tasks like driving trucks or “practicing” medicine, but in teaching machines how to do them so humans are freed up to innovate. Think about it. What would you create if you knew everything?

Do a quick Google search and you will see a multitude of stories on how AI and intelligent machines are replacing human (educated) guesswork with super-human precision. Jet engine makers like GE are employing AI to predict when to do preventative maintenance just before a turbine breaks, saving millions in repair costs. A German company called Otto is using AI to help lower the number of product returns, which cost the firm millions of euros a year – and it’s working.

The new AI system has reduced returns by over 2m items a year and the technology also benefits the environment because fewer packages get dispatched to begin with, or sent back. The list keeps going, from Facebook using AI to identify users showing signs of suicide to voice-cloning to fraud detection to things we can’t even imagine.

In 1997, world chess champion Garry Kasparov famously lost a chess match to IBM’s Big Blue, which at the time was one of the most intelligent machines ever built. Kasporov hated to lose, but after a while he got over it and today he’s a big advocate for AI. Why? Because he saw the ultimate upside of intelligent machines. “Waxing nostalgic about jobs lost to technology,” he recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “is little better than complaining that antibiotics put too many gravediggers out of work.”

So instead of worrying about the threat of Artificial Intelligence, let’s look forward to a more prosperous future created by the amazing things AI makes possible.

  1. How are artificial intelligence and machine learning impacting your business?
  2. What are you most concerned about?
  3. What excites you about AI?

I look forward to hearing your thoughts!