By Tabitha Jenkins
‘AI will take over my job’; ‘It will end up like the terminator and end the world’; ‘It will outsmart the human race’; ‘If it makes a mistake it could be catastrophic’; ‘Can we really put that much trust into a machine?’.
There is a lot of negative association with AI, but is that because there often confusion about what artificial intelligence actually is, what it can do, and what it will be able to do in the future?
We were spoilt with our panel of experts at this year’s 2018 Biology Week Debate on whether AI can save the world organised in partnership by the Royal Society of Biology, the Biochemical Society and the British Pharmacological Society. The Royal Institution opened its historic doors again to the influx of diverse people all enthusiastic to watch this year’s panel discuss the uses and future of artificial intelligence. While we may not have known much about it when we entered, we definitely did when we left.
The debate was chaired by Dr Arathi Prasad, a writer and broadcaster based at University College London. The panel was made up of a range of experts in the field- Dr Ji Zhou, working in crop phenomics at the Earlham Institute, Dr A Aldo Faisal, looking at brain control of movement at Imperial College London, Professor Maja Pantic, using machine learning to understand human expression also at Imperial College London and Professor Nasir Rajpoot, using AI in cancer diagnostics at the University of Warwick.
Picture Left to right: Nasir Rajpoot, Ji Zhou, Arathi Prasad, Aldo Faisal and Maja Pantic. Photo credit to Hannah Russell, The Biochemical Society.
Each panellist presented how they use and perceive AI opening up the possibilities and opportunities that these technologies could bring us. Dr Zhou talked about using IoT (internet of things…or a network of digital devices) in crop monitoring, to increase crop yield and quality. One project Dr Zhou has worked on was using technology to screen for seed germination, therefore optimising the percentage of ‘successful’ seeds during plantation. The use of AI has allowed his team to monitor crops on a larger scale as well as analyse vast amounts of data.
Professor Pantic offered an alternative use of machine learning, looking at using technology to monitor facial expression and interpret human behaviour to be able to diagnose depression and pain. This could be highly rewarding in future treatment of human behavioural diseases. Next up was Dr Faisal, addressing AI from a biologist’s point of view. He started by asking the audience why we had a brain- his answer: to specify future actions, in other words, movement. Using AI to help in movement by mimicking brain commands using eye tracking is fascinating research that could help disabled and paralysed people regain their independence.
Picture Left to right: Nasir Rajpoot, Aldo Faisal, Maja Pantic, Ji Zhou and Arathi Prasad. Photo credit Tabitha Jenkins.
We also heard about the opportunities of using AI in cancer diagnosis, potentially helping to modernise what Professor Rajpoot referred to as the ‘19th century current methods of diagnosis’. Professor Rajpoot spoke about the technology that would be able to analyse vast amounts of data, identifying potential cancerous tissue on a microscopic level and help predict reoccurrence. That rounded up the panellists leaving it open to questions.
Dr Prasad challenged whether perhaps AI had the potential to find new ‘creative’ solutions to old problems that humans missed, one example including drug administering across the blood-brain barrier, a problem that has troubled scientists for years. The potential is there was the main consensus. Professor Pantic made the important point that the results of AI are as good as the data put into the system to teach the machine. There are important considerations that need addressing in the future of AI, ‘machine learning technology is about the data that is put into the system, by the human, and therefore it is essential that the data set is diverse and large to ensure the technology remains un-bias’.
When opened to the audience, the questions came flooding in. One of my favourites was whether we should call AI, AI? Professor Pantic responded by acknowledging that AI is an umbrella, coving a range of different areas of research, including machine learning, network controlled systems, and many many more, you could use any name and the meaning wouldn’t change. The idea of ‘intelligence’ was also argued, can we call it artificial intelligence when the very meaning of intelligence is not wholly understood.
Another prominent question to me was whether AI would be the end of many jobs, a protuberant question to many. It was answered honestly by Faisal, ‘it is not about AI taking jobs, it is about using AI to off-load over worked people’, Pantic added ‘technology could extend our senses but cannot replace human skills’ we need to ‘move with AI and not against it’. Perhaps job recruitment will involve the willingness of people to work with AI and not without it, but I think we are all safe in our careers.
One of the closing comments from Professor Pantic neutralised a lot of worry associated with AI; ‘AI can only do as well as humans can do, we will not see the real-world terminator’.
Perhaps this discussion will have changed people’s opinion on or perceptions of AI. After the event The Biochemical Society decided to see what people thought about AI by hosting an opinions board. The enthusiasm and engagement was great to see.
Some of the comments from the activity hosted by The Biochemical Society. Thank you to the participating members of the public. Photo credit to James Brown and Tabitha Jenkins, The Biochemical Society.
Audience opinion remained mostly positive, perhaps expected at an AI themed event, but concerns remained, understandably, about the need for regulation and training. Perhaps this could be the topic of a future debate?
AI development needs to remain transparent for people to understand and remain behind the movement; without public understanding and support, AI will face a lot of resistance. One thing we can all agree on, the opportunities of AI are immense, and who knows where the next invention will take us. And to think, this all started with a simple algorithm…
You can watch the whole debate here.
This event was part of the 2018 Biology Week celebrations. You can catch up on many of the other great events taking place across the country here. Policy Lates on diversity and inclusion in STEM hosted by the Royal Society of Biology was also a great event during biology week, you can watch the event here.
I am a PhD student at the University of Nottingham studying helicases in DNA repair. I am currently working at the Biochemical Society with the public engagement and education department. I really enjoy talking about science (any and all science) with the public and would love to see changes in STEM education.