Understanding the AI Revolution and Beyond

The world today is facing a grave crisis brought by COVID-19 pandemic. It has led to the stagnation of people’s movement and nations are struggling to bring their economies back to normal. Behind the millions of infected patients and lacks of deaths due to the deadly disease, is the unknown nature of virus and delay in ascertaining the symptoms. Now, imagine a technology that can sense and process the biochemical changes which occur at the time a person is infected with the virus. Soon, the corrective measures can be taken and the person will be cured. This is actually possible with the confluence of biotechnology and information technology combined with the power of Artificial Intelligence (AI).

AI is poised to disrupt our world and the revolution brought by it has immense applications for human kind – from health, education and agriculture to mobility, manufacturing and entertainment. Simply put, AI is the ability of a machine to emulate human intelligence and take cognitive decisions without any pre-programming. It is also true that we are in a nascent stage of AI revolution and its true potential is very difficult to comprehend. But it would not be an exaggeration to say that the 21st century belongs to AI and we as humans have to adapt ourselves to changes brought in our lives by this technological disruption. The world of tomorrow belongs to cooperation between humans and machines and not to conflict between the two.

In this article, let us try to discern how the incumbent AI revolution knocking our doors will change the way we live and work. First, we try to explain what AI means for a commoner and what its various dimensions are. Then we discuss the various application areas of AI with detailed analysis on one or two specific areas. We also try to critically examine if there are any negative sides of AI and how we humans can deal with them. Lastly, we touch on the larger debate between AI and human intelligence, and whether there is any probability of the former dominating the later in future.

It is very difficult to define a term completely when we ourselves are not aware of it in totality. Hence, to define AI, it is better to learn various features which we have discovered until now. Primarily, AI refers to the ability of machines to perform cognitive tasks like thinking, perceiving, learning, problem-solving and decision making which till now was a domain of human beings. To further refine, it is a constellation of technologies that enable machines to act with higher levels of intelligence and emulate the human capabilities of sense, comprehend, and act. Hence, one can say that AI augments human capabilities to improve the task at hand. For instance, consider the self-driving AI powered cars. It senses the incoming traffic and makes quick decisions on whether to apply the brake or not. It works on millions of data fed to it and gradually it learns on its own to become a perfect driver. This can drastically reduce the number of accidents which occur due to human mistakes and an AI car has a very lesser chance to commit those mistakes. Though there are debates on AI cars taking over the human driving jobs let us discuss this later.

AI can be categorised in different ways – one is weak versus strong AI and the other is narrow against general AI. The weak AI performs simulated thinking without any consciousness about what it is doing while a strong AI describes actual thinking with conscious behavior as humans do. A narrow AI does a specific task or set of tasks. For instance, the capabilities of IBM’s Deep Blue, the chess playing computer that beat world champion Gary Kasparov in 1997, were limited to playing chess. General AI is something that can be used to complete a wide range of tasks in a wide range of environments. As such, it’s much closer to human intelligence. Now, when we combine a strong AI with a general one, we get what is called superintelligence, which will be beyond human intelligence whenever it gets there. Till now, we have been able to achieve the capabilities of a combined weak and narrow AI.

What are the applications of AI in real life? While it can have several applications some of which are beyond present contemplation, it would be prudent to discuss the immediate ones such as health, education, agriculture, mobility and manufacturing. Application of AI in healthcare can help address issues of high barriers to access to healthcare facilities, particularly in rural areas that suffer from poor connectivity and limited supply of healthcare professionals Similarly, in education, it can help overcome the challenges of quality and accessibility with the added benefit of personalised education fit for a particular student’s need. A project named Unnayan Banka was applauded for its unique approach to catering the needs of individual students using the technology of AI and big data analytics. According to Kundan Kumar (the IAS officer who was the brain behind the initiative), this approach moves away from the concept of rote learning by providing real-time customised education and covers all three needs of a robust education system – responsiveness, transparency and efficiency. Such is the power of technology if used for social good.

Similarly, in agriculture, it can bring another food revolution by catering to the increasing demand for food for an additional 2 billion people worldwide by 2050. It also has the potential to address challenges such as inadequate demand prediction, lack of assured irrigation, and overuse (or misuse) of pesticides and fertilisers. For instance, in Andhra Pradesh, farmers can click the image of their crop and send it to the dedicated AI team who then provide instant answers on the disease along with the solution to improve the crop productivity. Such is the noble idea to bring the technology from a lab to the land with the click of a finger.

Now, having discussed several benefits of AI, let us focus our attention on some of the concerns related to AI. One primary concern is that AI is a black box technology. It means that the present technology of AI cannot explain the reason behind its decisions. Its opaque nature and the inherent biases because of the data being produced from human beings have raised doubts among experts. For instance, if used with malafide intentions, an AI machine can promote discrimination on the basis of race, religion, colour, sex, etc. because it relies on human beings for data input which it processes to make decisions.

The most important concern with AI is the fear of job loss as AI-powered machines and robots would supposedly ‘replace human beings’. According to a report “Future of Work” by World Economic Forum (WEF), around 50% of jobs done by humans today would be replaced by machines in near future. But the same report also predicts that equal number of jobs would be created in other areas for human beings. The need is to adapt to this technological disruption and focus on reskilling and upskilling of people so that they can cooperate with AI rather than competing with them. For instance, an AI drone would make several human tasks redundant. But the experience in the US tells that with a single drone replacing a human job, around 40 more jobs were created for handling the overall task of the drone, So, it seems that the fear of job loss is more out of lack of our understanding of AI and resistance to change and adapt to this disruption.

Now, coming to the bigger debate of AI versus Human intelligence and the arrival of superintelligent AI. Is there any possibility of AI overpowering humans? Well it is very difficult to say a firm yes or no due to our current lack of complete understanding. The difference between past technological disruptions and AI revolution can be understood with the following hypothesis: human beings have two abilities – physical and cognitive. The previous industrial revolution merely replaced the physical abilities of humans and hence we could easily switch to other domains that require more cognitive skills. But the AI disruption will replace both the physical and cognitive abilities and hence it would be difficult for human beings to find the third quality unique to them. Yuval Noha Harari in his book “ 21 Lessons for the 21st Century” argues that the confluence of biotechnology with the information technology combined with the power of AI can have a revolutionary impact on human lives. There is a danger of the creation of super humans or what he calls biological species. The future classification of humans might not be on the basis of race or colour but an entire new biological species could be created due to the unequal access of power of AI among individuals. Those who have the technology of AI can use it to spy even the human brain. So the very existence of the concept of privacy and individuality will be questioned.

So, should we fear AI? The answer here is a firm no. All these speculations are just a possibility. Homosapiens are the most evolved species and we have been able to face several historical disruptions with our intellectual evolution and technological know-how. The need of the hour is to increase research on the pros and cons of AI and empower our people with the knowledge necessary to understand this technological disruption. The future belongs to the technology and hence we must cooperate with AI so as to make our lives easier. Jobs may be lost in some areas but equivalent opportunities will be created in other areas. At the end of the day, we need to ask a question – Do we really need to protect our lives or jobs? If by giving few jobs to AI our lives can become happier and peaceful, it doesn’t seem to be a bad idea.

-Nimisha Agrawal (One of the Prize Winners of Article Writing Competition in the 25-44 Years Age Group)

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