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Only the privileged fear a robot revolution

ICE Graveyard 19/07/2016 Ambarish Mitra

Leading venture capitalists, scientists and CEOs all have the same prediction for artificial intelligence: machines will take jobs away from both blue- and white-collar workers, “eat the world” and, ultimately, overthrow humanity. These histrionics have driven a widely accepted negative narrative about this technology’s potential impact on the future of humanity.

That needs to change. Bringing artificial intelligence into the mainstream world should be met with hope and empathy, not fear.

The concerns of these experts — wealthy men with unparalleled access to utilities, healthcare, public safety, education and job opportunities — are the concerns of privilege. Consider that in much of the world, the ability to see a doctor, eat a wholesome meal or bathe in clean water is still a luxury. The fear of a robot revolution may feel justified for the privileged, who have much to lose — but it’s a different story when you look at what the least privileged have to gain.

We are still far, far away from a world where autonomous, truly sentient, artificial intelligence will exist, let alone be capable of harming humanity to any significant degree. If your fear today is of a so-called “robot revolution,” you’re missing the point. In a world of inequality and risk, we cannot ignore the opportunities AI will afford the least privileged among us in the nearer future.

AI will take jobs away, yes. But it will also fill them on a scale never before possible, where they are needed most: healthcare and education, to start. The brutal fact is that low-income countries suffer from an extreme lack of doctors and educators. Even in developed countries, segments of the population have far less access to these services, most often because of the narrow availability of quality, affordable options.

If you’re afraid of losing your job, imagine if you had to fear losing your child to a preventable disease.

Expanding the global inventory of educators and doctors would have a massive positive effect on humanity as a whole. Consider the realities of life for the underprivileged…

The quality of a child’s education is a layered and nuanced subject, but it has been proven time and again that the most marginalized groups in any population, regardless of the country’s overall income level, are the least likely to enter and complete school. It is estimated that 250 million children worldwide have not learned basic literacy or math skills. Because the foundation that is laid for those skills is in early education, it’s noteworthy that in low-income countries only 57 percent of the children who enter primary school complete it.

In some of the poorest countries, fewer than half the children complete just four years of primary education. Education is a crucial element in changing population forecasts and raising socio-economic development, so not having the opportunity to even attain an education creates a frustrating cycle of poverty for millions of people.

A similar frustration can be found in the resource gaps in basic healthcare. The World Health Organization estimates that anything fewer than roughly two healthcare workers (physicians, nurses and midwives) per 1,000 people is not adequate coverage for primary healthcare needs. However, low-income countries average 2.5 physicians per 10,000 people. In comparison, high-income countries have 28.7 physicians per 10,000 people.

Let’s once again think of the most vulnerable among us: children. The infant mortality rate in low-income countries is about 53 percent. More than half of our children dying would be met with nothing short of outrage in high-income countries, where the infant mortality rate is only about 5 percent. While it can quickly become very depressing to spend time in these facts and figures, depression is hopeless, and I truly believe that through artificial intelligence there is hope.

Consider for a moment a few of the ways in which artificial intelligence is already working to make the world a better place. Google’s DeepMind is partnering with NHS hospitals in the U.K. to use AI to identify what needs to be done to prevent an admitted patient’s condition from deteriorating. From there, it can also allocate that patient to the right staff and track what procedures have and have not been done. I think any nurse would agree this is a tremendous, life-saving asset — and one that only scratches the surface of what this technology will be able to do in the near future.

Similarly, there are many AI experts who believe that artificial intelligence can and will be used to diagnose disease at scale, while actually being more accurate than a human physician. Sadly, 16,000 children die every day of preventable disease. I’m amazed there are not more advocates out there pushing that we develop this technology sooner.

If harnessed to bring education to those aforementioned 250 million children who go without it, AI has the potential to lower poverty rates, increase literacy, lower infant mortality rates, contribute to an overall better quality of life and even help mitigate climate change. How? Because all of these are symptomatic of what happens when you increase the education levels of women.

With the possibility to save millions of lives, reduce infant mortality rates and create a more sustainable and equal world, what is keeping us from taking action? When you boil it down, there are two huge challenges facing the proliferation of AI technology to low-income communities.

At the heart of the matter is the humanity that the “robots” behind AI could bring to us.

The first is that establishing the necessary infrastructure is an investment to which those with the ability to do are averse. Their concerns, as outlined above, are in the potential impact of AI to their own happiness, not what it can accomplish elsewhere. Secondly, we have to acknowledge that we haven’t hit the tipping point for the tech. At Blippar, we’ve made strides to use AI and augmented reality to educate children; but I have to acknowledge that the technology isn’t ready to scale at the global level, nor is it yet in a place to teach children transferable literacy skills.

I don’t think these issues are insurmountable, or even things that can’t be fixed in the next 10 years. Mark Zuckerberg has made it a personal passion project of his to bring the internet to everyone, and one of the factors that makes that project possible is the proliferation of mobile phones. Of the 7 billion people that populate this earth, 6 billion of them have access to a working mobile phone.

Given the ever-growing ubiquity of smartphones and the ways in which people use them to access the internet, it seems only a matter of time before most of the world is connected. And considering the possibility of further developing and redesigning the learning boxes that fuel AI, cell phones could be the initial “robots” that start doing the teaching and diagnosing for those without alternative opportunities.

When you think of the millions of lives that could be saved and improved by access to basic healthcare and education, it makes the idea of fearing the further advancement of artificial intelligence seem myopic. The fact of the matter is that any developments in a robot revolution are going to look quite differently depending on where you happen to live in this world.

For some of us, artificial intelligence is scary because a robot barista means one less human with a job. But for others, a robot sanitation worker could mean access to clean, potable water. Many innovations in human history have led to job displacement, but people have always evolved and adapted. If you’re afraid of losing your job, imagine if you had to fear losing your child to a preventable disease.

I get excited when I think of the technological advancements that AI can bring, but what I think is at the heart of the matter is the humanity that the “robots” behind AI could bring to us. A more equal world means a world with healthier, happier, more educated people. If that means fewer jobs, that may also mean more leisure time to spend together, to think, to enter a new Renaissance.

We don’t need to fear a robot revolution. What we should really be concerned of is the kind of callous thinking that turns a blind eye to the suffering in the world and assumes there is nothing to be done to help.

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