The ‘To Be Or Not To Be’ question


The jury is still out on whether there is a case for or against Robotics & AI in our lives. Its time to examine the pros and cons.

“The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race”, fears Stephen Hawking. This apocalyptic vision of Hawking and many others including the likes of change pioneers like Elon Musk have resulted into ethical groups warning developers about the catastrophic repercussions that advancement in AI would have. In fact Elon Musk invested into London based AI company Deep Mind (which was acquired by Google for 400 Million British pounds), only so that “he could keep an eye on what’s going on with Artificial intelligence”.

There is a flipside to most things including more importantly the use of technology and Robotics & AI are probably the poster children for such a debate.

Of course there are the more obvious benefits to commerce and industry and how AI will make decision-making easier. To quote Deep Mind’s CEO Demis Hassabis “ Artifical intelligence tends to get a bad rap in popular culture. I think we are going to need AI to make the breakthroughs society wants. Climate, economics, disease- they are all tremendously complicated systems which cannot be handled by humans alone. AI related science will help this discovery process…drug discovery, protein folding, anything that involves big data”.

Whilst there are many apparent benefits, the real question we need to debate is whether the benefits of Robotics & AI outweigh the apparent dangers to the human civilisation itself. So if it’s the dangers to human civilisation that sceptics are questioning, then the field of AI can only be justified if it can prove its capabilities in saving lives. Here are some real world examples of how AI was used to save lives in the recent past…

Post 9/11, Robin Murphy, director of the ‘Center for Robot assisted Search and Rescue’ co ordinated a project where they sent squirrel sized rescue bots into the rubble of the World Trade Centre. In the wake of the Japanese tsunami in 2011 Robin used sonar equipped, remotely operated underwater vehicles to assess the damage to the ports and piers. In 2014 when mudslides occurred in Washington, Murphy’s UAVS gathered geological information in seven hours, which without robots would have taken several days. Murphy explains that UAVs can get accurate data from angles that satellites cant. During the mudslide, deep learning programs were used to train computers to sift through photographs and identify forms of life that could be trapped under the debris. The role of AI in disaster management and saving lives is obvious here.

Lets consider the example of Sentient Technologies, the world’s most funded AI start-up. In an interview to Wired magazine, CEO Antoine Blondeau explains how the company is working not only on the commercial applications of AI but also on life saving technologies. This includes the treatment of a blood infection called Sepsis that effects a million ICU patients in the US every year with a mortality rate of 20-50%. When Sentient learnt that a thirty-minute warning about the infection was enough to save a patient they analysed a year’s worth of data on the arterial blood pressure of six thousand patients and used its AI to create a system that can predict the onset of Sepsis 30 minutes ahead of time. To quote Blondeau “This is just first base. This is day one of AI. We’ve only just begun”

One only has to speculate about the implications of big data and AI in analysing and saving those suffering from other treatable conditions, which can lead to saving millions of lives.

AI practitioners like Andrew Ng who founded google’s first deep learning team explain that while machines are becoming more intelligent this does not mean that they are becoming sentient and there is a big difference between intelligence and sentience. However we could still argue that in the hands of sentient humans with the wrong intentions, AI can be used with catastrophic repercussions. But then that argument could be made about other technologies including Nuclear technology too?

At Robotics & AI we would like to pose the question about whether that fear alone will stop us from using AI to make quantum leaps into the future? We would love to hear what you think….



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