Artificial Intelligence is no longer a sci-fi vision of the future. We are living in a world where AI is disrupting industry and society at large in truly transformative ways. From chat bots reinventing customer service performace to machines such as IBM’s Watson beating some of the most intelligent human beings to ever live, artificial intelligence is altering everything from the biggest technological innovations to the simplest of tasks we perform on a daily basis. And both scenarios are true; AI has both the ability to push the world towards a state of permanent utopia, or it may very well trigger the downfall of humanity. The question, is no longer whether or not AI is possibly driving us to one of these two futures, but whether or not we can adapt at this early stage in a way that benefits humanity.
One of the first issues we’ve come to face is the question of what artificial intelligence, and intelligence in general, really is. While inventors such as Elon Musk have already begun designing brain-computer interfaces that could theoretically be used to treat a variety of medical issues, access thoughts and memories and perhaps one day even upload one’s consciousness to the internet, our current lack of understanding of how exactly the brain works—let alone our understanding of abstract concepts such as thoughts and human consciousness—makes it extremely difficult for scientists to create AI-powered devices that can precisely interact with the brain and the body in a way that isn’t detrimental. However, as we continue to deepen our understanding of the brain and human consciousness, we can further begin using technology simultaneously to deepen our understanding of human intelligence.
It is time to envision a more realistic future, one in which AI and machine learning are used to supplement and support human intelligence, rather than subvert it. The concept of intelligence augmentation demonstrates how artificial intelligence and humans will be able to live together in a mutually beneficial fashion.
While artificial intelligence may surpass humans in structured environments where inputs and outputs are clearly defined—such as a game of chess or the organization of large sets of data—this same machine learning often fails to work in less defined environments that involve nuanced decision-making and problem-solving. In structured settings, artificial intelligence can organize massive amounts of documents, emails and customer information in a business in mere seconds. But this same AI lacks the ability to evaluate what should be done with these data sets—which is the sort of nuanced decision making that humans excel at. If humans and artificial intelligence worked together, then, artificial intelligence algorithms could organize these data loads into a user-friendly interface with which human workers could more quickly and effectively make decisions.
Our population generates close to 10 billion megabytes of new information every second, which is an impossible amount of data to keep up with. With artificial intelligence’s ability to sort through data and note trends at lightning speed, however, we may soon be able to make headway of all the useful information that already exists in order to reach new insights in science, technology, and even society. Already, artificial intelligence is being used not only to collect data in the medical field, but is also being used to create device prototypes that can augment humans physically—and perhaps one day intellectually.
Even organs as delicate as our eyes can be augmented using artificial intelligence devices to aid in preventing blindness and degenerative diseases. E.J. Chichilnisky, a professor of neurosurgery and ophthalmology at Stanford University, is designing a device that may be able to reverse the effects of retinitis pigmentosa and age-related macular degeneration—both of which cause cells in the retina, which is responsible for converting light into electrical signals the brain can read, to die off—by inserting retinal implants that mimic the way the cells in the retina behave. This project that, if done successfully, could lead to radical insights in neural prosthetics.
Similarly, a research team from Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology and Sungkyunkwan University are developing a contact lens capable of measuring and monitoring glucose levels through tears, with an LED pixel in the lens that can be used to warn wearers visually when their glucose levels are off. While these innovations may seem like something out of a science fiction movie, they are well on their way to becoming a reality in a matter of years, if not months.
One of the most promising avenues for intelligence augmentation in recent years, however, is thought-controlled prosthetic limbs. Engineers at John Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab have created a 26-joint prosthetic arm that is controlled by a person’s thoughts through the remapping of remaining nerves from the missing arm to the new prosthetic arm. This device may even be able to one day allow users to feel sensations in the prosthetic as the remapped nerves grow deeper.
As we begin to better understand how artificial intelligence and machine learning can be used to create devices that interact with our neural framework, we may one day be able to insert chips into the brain itself that could be used to modulate mood and alertness, help us recognize and mediate unhealthy behaviors, and even augment our memories. While there are undoubtedly risks involved in humans and artificial intelligence’s deepening relationship, if governed correctly, these sort of brain-computer interfaces could very well elevate humanity to new heights.
In the end, humans have always adapted to new technology and will undoubtedly continue to adapt to the disruptions that artificial intelligence and machine learning are bringing. Indeed, while the risks involved with artificial intelligence are many, there are also enormous benefits that could change the world for the better. Ultimately, it will be this partnership between artificial intelligence and human intelligence that will transform humanity and bring us one step closer to Singularity.
About the author: Ana C. Rold is Founder and CEO of Diplomatic Courier, a Global Affairs Media Network. She teaches political science courses at Northeastern University and is the Host of The World in 2050–A Forum About Our Future. To engage with her on this article follow her on Twitter @ACRold.