The Potential and Promise of AI

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Doctors who don’t make mistakes. Judges without biases. Teachers with endless patience who tailor their lessons to each student. And all of this accessible around the world.

These are examples that illuminate the promise of artificial intelligence (AI) outside of an office space. And though lofty goals for this emerging technology, they’re closer to reality than one might think. For the first time in human history, technology can go beyond carrying out our explicit instructions, and instead has the capacity to “think” in a manner that mirrors what humans do – creating, making choices, reasoning, adapting and learning. This powerful innovation will fundamentally reshape our lives and those of future generations, with tremendous potential to fix the global problems that matter most.

PwC released a new report on attitudes around AI, including the emerging technology’s current and future implications on society. You can find some dynamic visualization of the findings here. Our survey of 2,500 U.S. consumers and business decision makers revealed numerous predictions, a few hesitations, but an overall sense of excitement. I encourage everyone to read this fascinating report for themselves.

Pop culture and media are full of fears about artificial intelligence. While concerns about the power of AI being used in the wrong way are not invalid, overall we saw that they were outweighed by optimism. More than half of the respondents to our survey agree AI will help solve complex problems that plague modern societies (63%) and help people live more fulfilling lives (59%).

The report shows that 72% of business decision makers agree AI will be the business advantage of the future, and I’ve talked about the way that AI will be a shot in the arm for businesses, but its value goes much further than the enterprise. Here are three global challenges where AI can make the biggest impact:

  • Healthcare: The report highlights some of the ways that AI can leverage enormous amount of DNA data, as well as data from diagnostic tools, wearables and ingestibles, and countless other sources. This data can be used to develop and test new treatment approaches and could finally eliminate cancer and many chronic illnesses. AI is expected to play a significant role in the emerging field of precision medicine, which tailors disease treatment and prevention based on an individual’s unique genes, lifestyle and environmental factors. To learn more about the ways AI and robotics are defining New Health, take a look at this report from our global colleagues.
  • Education: When asked to name roles where people would turn to AI assistants instead of humans within the next five years, respondents named “tutor” as the top response. A future where schoolchildren will see a robot standing in front of a chalkboard is unlikely, but we can expect AI to continue to help personalize learning to student’s individual needs, particularly in online schools and universities. Instead of one-size-fits-all textbooks and lesson plans, AI systems can customize the content and pace of curriculum for every individual student.
  • The Environment: Respondents to our survey named climate change as one of ten top priority areas to apply the power of AI. It is already being used in the field of computational sustainability, which applies computer science, information science and related disciplines toward managing and allocating natural resources. Using the vast computational abilities of AI, scientists are better able to spot trends in environmental data and make predictions to better preserve natural resources. AI can also help us each to live more sustainably, such as through systems of autonomous vehicles that eliminate traffic jams in cities that create unnecessary energy waste and pollution.
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These examples only scratch the surface of the tremendous potential AI holds to improve each of our lives. So why did 23% of people tell us they believe AI will have serious, negative implications? I don’t think these naysayers doubt the power of the technology, but rather the ability of humans to implement it in a fair and ethical way.

These concerns are not unfounded. AI is one of our ultimate innovations, and human history is full of examples of innovations that don’t turn out as intended by their inventors. Here are three things that will be important for decision-makers to keep in mind as AI goes mainstream:

  • Ethics: Important discussions are already happening across industry and academia about the ethics of AI – how to ensure these super-intelligent systems trained to reach a particular goal will only do so within a moral framework. We must also ensure that the power of AI reaches all of society, and is not concentrated only among those who can afford it. I am heartened to see that groups like the Partnership on AI, which counts companies like Google and Microsoft as partners, are formulating best practices for fairness, equity and transparency at the same time as they are developing the technology in their engineering labs.
  • Data Privacy: In order for AI to fulfill the promises I outlined above, it needs access to vast amounts of highly personal data. This can be a difficult pill to swallow for consumers in an age where massive data breaches are making headlines almost daily. In our survey, consumers indicated they were willing to share their personal information to further medical breakthroughs or relieve traffic in their cities. However, 87% of consumers still cited data privacy as a major concern related to AI, and the security of this data must be addressed.
  • Perspective: As with any transformational change, the success of AI rests on how we leverage the power of perspective – bringing together many diverse viewpoints for open and frank discussions. The AI revolution cannot be led only by engineers and data scientists; it requires input from business strategists, designers, philosophers, policymakers and even cynics. We must think through not just the goals of AI, and the technology underpinnings, but the experience each of us will have when it’s at the center of our lives.
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AI has been called the most significant technology ever created by humans. We are only beginning to understand its power and potential, but now is the time to set the vision for the way we can ensure this technology improves the lives, products, and experiences for everyone.

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