Ask most people for their views on artificial intelligence and the first thing they come out with are scare stories: the robots that are coming to take our jobs, the algorithms that leave us nowhere to hide, the killer drones poised to swoop from the skies…you know how it goes.
But there are more positive stories about the potential of AI and automation to act as a springboard to a more sustainable future. They make for much more palatable reading, and there’s no shortage of them. Here are seven for starters…
The energy squeeze
Google reckoned its server farms were object lessons in energy efficiency – until it let the team at its AI subsidiary, DeepMind, set their algorithms to work. They soon discovered a series of subtle ways to knock a further 40% off consumption totals. This not only saves millions of dollars but is proof that AI can spot savings we’ve all overlooked.
Small is beautiful
Green optimists point to a future where electricity is produced and managed at an ultra-local level, with a mix of solar, wind and other renewables combining with sophisticated energy storage – right down to the battery of an electric car. AI promises to make this work, micro-managing demand, so that supply is efficiently sent where it’s needed. The millions of financial transactions involved would be handled seamlessly thanks to secure blockchain connections and the Internet of Things. In turn, this could make viable a whole range of energy innovations, such as ‘solar sprays’, which turn every exterior surface of a building into a mini power plant.
In an AI-enabled world, the health of the environment, virtually down to every field and street, can be monitored, measured and reported on. Thanks to a mix of sensors, drones and satellites – which are all communicating and comparing data – polluters would have nowhere to hide. And business will be able to swiftly spot where every single one of its source materials comes from and monitor their manufacture, as well as the welfare of their outsourced workforces.
The streets won’t just be cleaner thanks to AI, they’ll be smoother, safer and quieter, too. Snarling traffic jams will turn into smooth flows of driverless electric vehicles. And you won’t even need to own one to benefit. The availability of personal transport on demand will save on both resources, and space, making the anxious search for a parking spot a thing of the past.
Farms with a future
AI isn’t just for city slickers. Crop-picking robots will mean an end to labour shortages on farms and field sensors will check soil moisture, fertility and crop conditions, triggering interventions as soon as required. Best of all, plummeting costs are set to bring all this within range of farmers in the developing world, putting power into the hands of those who need it most.
The algorithm will see you now…
Specialist radiographers have years of experience in spotting cancer – but sometimes algorithms do it better. Faced with some rare cancers that are hard to spot in tests, they outperformed the human eye. In other cases, humans managed it better. But – hearteningly – it turns out they work best in tandem. One study showed doctors make mistakes in 3.5% of cases, while state-of-the-art AI has an error rate of 7.5%. When working together the error rate can drop to 0.5%.
Cue the cobots
This shows the potential of ‘cobots’ – AI working alongside, rather than replacing, humans. Robots will take on the grunt work, whether it’s crunching numbers or crop picking, freeing their human partners for the more interesting stuff – not least, of course, managing the robots. Whole new classes of jobs will emerge, some of them as yet unknown. And if that sounds unlikely, think how someone in the 1980s would have reacted to you telling them that, when you grow up, you’re going to be a web designer.
And here’s the flip side to the “robot ate my job” fears. Sure, some will go – but some of them are hardly ones we’d be itching to do if offered the choice. If AI can munch those jobs, while providing the economic boost to finance the creation of others that draw more on the ingenuity and creativity that’s unique to humans, it might yet be a blessing, not a curse.
Martin Wright (@martinfutures) is a writer, speaker and consultant specialising in sustainability and stories of a hopeful future. A former Director of Forum for the Future, he is a director of Positive News and an adviser to Ethical Corporation.