Disruptive By Design: Four Ways Artificial Intelligence Will Change Our Lives

September 1, 2015
By Maj. Ryan Kenny, USA

For centuries, information revolutions have spurred dramatic sea changes not only defining how people gather, archive and share knowledge, but also fundamentally altering how they communicate and even think. From the dawn of the spoken word to the development of written languages and the invention of the printing press, telegraph, personal computer and now smartphone, innovations in communication have revamped the course of human understanding and interaction.

The proliferation of mobile devices, wearable technology and digital sensors drive today’s information revolution, known as the age of the Internet of Things (IoT). Are these advancements bringing us closer to a symbiotic relationship with information technology? It appears so. Our smartphones, for example, are becoming digital extensions of our minds—akin to cognitive prosthetics. We rely increasingly on our devices to navigate daily life. In fact, a recent poll by The Huffington Post noted that people would rather leave home without their wallets than without their smartphones.

Emerging artificial intelligence (AI) technology builds upon the new information ecosystem that the age of the IoT is developing, and soon this technology will be as ubiquitous as smartphones. Given this reality, military communicators and the defense industry must consider how AI will transform their perspectives and behaviors.

First, it will outsource understanding. We humans have sought for a long time to better understand ourselves, each other and our surroundings. AI provides for a profound new comprehension. Already, pre-AI systems such as IBM’s Watson, the famous cognitive supercomputer, demonstrate the potential to comb through mountains of information on the Internet and interpret natural language. As AI systems improve, they will use deep learning to study the planet and mankind’s collective knowledge. The technologies will evolve because of the abundance of real-world sensor data, digitized knowledge and robust networks—all of which could lead to human subject matter experts being replaced by AI advisers. It remains to be seen, however, whether people will trust the advice of an AI guide over a human.

AI also will outsource decision making. As the technologies are perfected, humankind’s decision-making abilities will be dramatically altered. The technologies will make digital subject matter experts available at all times. AI personal assistants could weigh in on nearly every decision someone might need to reach, including complex or moral problems. The phenomenon could mark the nascent drift from valuing human opinion to trusting an artificial presence.

In the future, as we take AI systems with us everywhere we go—just as we tether ourselves to smartphones and wearables today—the systems will learn our idiosyncratic decision-making styles and preferences. The AI frameworks might help improve our reasoning skills by alerting us when we demonstrate a bias or use poor logic. In fields that require successful competitive decision making, AI could offer a distinct advantage. It is unclear, however, whether leaders will embrace outsourcing their decision-making process to AI systems, as the move could call into question where responsibility would reside for decisions. The ongoing debate about the safety and reliability of self-driving cars, for example, hints at the litigious landscape sure to emerge when AI systems take over human decision-making tasks.

Of course, combining AI problem-solving dexterity with robotic mechanics could lead to the outsourcing of manual labor as well. Robotics companies already build devices that do away with the need for human labor. As the AI control mechanisms for commercial and personal robotics improve, society will see more companies and individuals willing to pay for services delivered by robots. Some people fear the adverse impact on human employment while others see the potential benefits of optimized production for society. In many cases, manufacturers already have switched from human employees to robots, and the trend will accelerate as AI improves. Large commercial farming companies, most notably those in Japan, have shifted to AI labor. Ultimately, the migration to an automaton-led work force is sure to disrupt current business models and cause humans to develop new job skills focused on working with—and perhaps even for—AI teammates.

Finally, AI will outsource hazardous duty. Employing robotic systems with AI controls will provide more options in the area of hazardous environments and limit work in dangerous situations or locations. Whether the job is to repair a nuclear power plant or fly combat missions over territories with anti-air capabilities, leaders prefer using unmanned systems over humans. The U.S. military, like most others, has a history of preserving its human combat potential by protecting the lives of service members. Unmanned systems, controlled by AI, put combat sensors and weapon systems into contested areas with no risk to human life.

Given AI’s potential capabilities, it might not be long before we loathe leaving home, let alone going to war, without a personal AI assistant. As much as some fear that the systems could become our digital masters and supplant humans in labor and thought, many also believe AI technologies offer great benefits to humankind. Regardless of your position in the debate, clearly we will employ AI in the same way we capitalized on past information innovations. AI will help us understand our world, solve our problems, make us more efficient and keep us out of harm’s way.

Maj. Ryan Kenny, USA, attends the College of Naval Command and Staff of the U.S. Naval War College and is a researcher with its Gravely Naval Warfare Research Group. He created an online forum to foster discussions on emerging technologies at www.militarycommunicators.org. The views expressed here are his alone and do not represent the views and opinions of the Defense Department, U.S. Army or other organizations.

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