A chrome skeleton crushes a human skull into white dust under its metal foot, autonomous tanks plow through a hill of human bone while drones circle overhead under a blackened sky, cornering the unlucky few who remain of the human resistance in a twisted and gray post-nuclear holocaust: and so goes the iconic opening scene of James Cameron’s 1991 sci-fi action blockbuster, Terminator 2 : Judgement Day, the second movie in a long-running film franchise that has for decades pitted man against Skynet, the conscious general-AI computer intelligence determined to drag and drop humanity in the proverbial Recycle Bin. This enemy is terrifying, unrelenting, made by our own hand, and in our own image. These robots are unfeeling, cold, calculating, with deadly precision; the perfect enemy to keep us at the edge of our seats.
Cameron’s depiction of an omnipotent robotic foe to human kind, driven by a directive to exterminate and replace that which is so inferior to it, encapsulates our deep anxieties about machine and computer intelligence, a kind of myth, where human hubris takes technology too far in an attempt to play God, and in doing so opens a Pandora’s box which cannot be unopened. At the time of its release, these images of a robotic horde and a liquid-chrome shapeshifting antagonist (the ‘T-1000’ assassin, played by Robert Patrick) struck a nerve with pop cultural consciousness, garnering accolades and smashing ticket sales records internationally. And while Cameron’s army of super intelligent and conscious machines have rightfully carved out a place in annals of cinema, his production certainly was not the first, nor the last to entertain us with dreams of robot villains and super computer intelligence. Perhaps what these machines of death really do best is fulfill a convenient role, and as such are relegated to always play the ‘bad guy’ on our screens and in the pages of our novels.
More than Meets the Eye
One might ask what it is we find so engaging about robots that put us in existential peril. Are these anxieties born of some prejudice towards our robotic AI counterparts? Is AI our enemy, or are we unfairly pigeonholing a convenient antagonist for the sake of a good story? It may behoove us to take a more nuanced look at this mechanical enemy.
From its very conception, the idea of computer intelligence has scared us on an existential level. To imagine human-like super-intelligence in machines that rival or challenge us in our ability to think, reason, and act leaves us feeling uncomfortable at best.
What’s in a Name?
In 1920, the word ‘robot’ entered our collective lexicon through Czech playwright Karel Capek’s theatrical work, R.U.R. In Capek’s play, robots designed to work and labor for humankind revolt and lead a rebellion against their human masters, eventually wiping out all humans on earth. Capek’s play saw the word robot, which owes its etymology to the word meaning ‘forced labor’, like that of a serf, in Czech, coming to replace ‘automaton’ and ‘android’ in several languages. It is through these connotations, of master and servant, of maker and worker, rebellion, extinction and replacement, that we inherit this word.
The seminal figure of science fiction Isaac Asimov played upon these anxieties in the 1940s and 50s with his published ‘fixup’ novel I, Robot, which anticipated complex relations between humans, machines, and morality. Since then, Hollywood’s imagination has run wild with this trope, providing us a new convenient foe that pits humanity against an extinction-level threat, all the while achieving record-breaking box office success. From Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick’s calculating HAL 9000 in 2001 : A Space Odyssey, Cameron’s Terminator, to the malevolent machines of The Matrix, it seems there is no satiating our appetite for Hollywood’s convenient AI antagonists.
Lofty Ideas and Working Class Panic
How seriously should we as a species take these silver screen threats? It’s not hard to see why across the board there is a sense of impending danger with AI when thought leaders and heads of industry, never mind movie producers, have signaled a need for caution when approaching the point of no return with AI. Business tycoon, tech innovator, twitter personality, and overall iconoclast Elon Musk has warned of the risk of AI overtaking human intelligence within the next five years, urging researchers, leaders, developers and policy makers to take the threat of super intelligent computers as serious as the nuclear bomb. Others have expressed a less fatalistic perspective towards AI, like author, inventor, researcher, and futurist, Ray Kurzweil, who sees super intelligence as a necessary step towards evolutionary transcendence through what he and others call the Singularity, a merging of machine intelligence and human consciousness.
Somehow these concerns, as lofty as they may be, have occurred parallel to anxieties on factory floors and assembly lines, where the rise of robotics, machine intelligence and AI threaten job security for workers who feel robots are here to take their jobs. Since Henry Ford’s assembly line , there has been fear, and perhaps not unfounded fear, but very real and pragmatic fear that robots are here to make the working man obsolete. In fact, long gone are the days of human-driven assembly lines.
Back to Reality
AI consultant Catherine Breslin, who used to work on Alexa at Amazon takes a more sober approach, ‘there’s an idea that’s popular, of raising concerns about AI by imagining a future where it becomes powerful enough to oppress all of humanity.’ Breslin continues, ‘but, projecting into an imagined future distracts from how technology is used right now. AI has done some amazing things in recent years.’ The truth is, AI is already here. Surrounding us. Though it is not here to take over, to kill us, and then take our jobs. AI is a tool that has been, is, and will, continue to be helpful to humanity.
A Veteran’s Aid
One of these important ‘amazing things’ recently covered in the New York Times is the United States Veterans Affairs (VA) implementing AI-assisted algorithm to identify people at risk of suicide and self-harm. Since 2000, the rate of suicide with at risk populations (like veterans) have seen a steady rise. Healthcare providers do their best to identify people at greatest risk based on a number of observed factors, including substance abuse, past suicide attempts, employment history, or length of tour of duty. Unfortunately, these human interventions often fall short of identifying and helping those who do attempt self-harm.
‘The fact is, we can’t rely on trained medical experts to identify people who are truly at high risk,’ says Dr. Marianne S. Goodman, a psychiatrist at the Veterans Integrated Service Network in the Bronx. ‘We’re no good at it.’
This is where the VA’s AI and big data-driven system makes a difference. Named Reach Vet, the VA’s algorithm updates continually, generating a new list of high-risk veterans each month based on a comprehensive list of factors. When a person is flagged, a coordinator makes a call to arrange an appointment. A doctor explains the suicide risk designation and works with the patient to come up with a suicide safety plan. The results from the first six months since its rollout have been promising, with high risk groups using and accessing lifesaving veteran’s services, like counseling and treatment, more than doubled, and mortality rates have been declining.
Safe and Effective Vaccine Roll Out
In another pressing use case, AI has also played a vital role in the successful roll out of the COVID-19 vaccine. It will be no mean feat to properly vaccinate the entire human population safely, efficiently, taking into account all standards of safety, with care taken to monitor side effects. Healthcare supply chains are also very complex and not tuned to rapid delivery at scale. Great care must also be taken to meet these logistical demands so as not to corrupt or spoil the valuable and limited vaccine supplies.
Here’s where AI can step in and help save lives. ‘Humans don’t have the capacity to consider thousands of competing and evolving factors,’ says Arijit Sengupta, Founder and CEO of Aible. ‘This is precisely what AI does best—that is, complex scenario planning and hypothesis testing that’s flexible enough to adjust quickly to new information so that decisions can be made based on the best available evidence.’
In the UK, the National Health Service has turned to software company Genpact to utilize AI to monitor the potential adverse reactions to the COVID-19 vaccines. Clinical trials use small sample populations to test the efficacy of their vaccine. Data generated on the reactions from this small population can be fed to AI models that can monitor and predict those in the general population who may be susceptible to a bad reaction. With these potential risks identified, healthcare providers can gain a better understanding as to which groups of patients receiving the vaccine may need closer monitoring.
Healthcare organizations in the United States are also using Machine Learning to identify the most at-risk people within large populations, who should receive priority access to the COVID-19 vaccines. Those with preexisting conditions and other mitigating factors, like old age and limited healthcare access, may be particularly susceptible to a fatal COVID-19 infection and as such need early access to the potentially life-saving vaccine. By delivering the vaccines to those who need it most across a large population, AI is ensuring the maximum effectiveness of vaccine.
Driving the Future of Ecommerce
From this vantage point, it becomes increasingly clear that AI is not our foe. It is a lifesaving tool. But the benefits to society at large go beyond tackling healthcare issues. AI can play a vital role in making the lives of warehouse and factory workers safer and more efficient. As the rise of ecommerce continues, the warehouses and depots of enterprises increasingly become the crucial lynchpins to success. Demand has also boosted the need for effective forklift drivers, now key players in the supply chain.
According to the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), forklifts were the source of 79 work-related deaths and 8,140 nonfatal injuries involving days away from work in 2019. While these numbers may seem disturbing, OSHA also estimates that about 70% of forklift accidents in the US could be prevented by correcting unsafe driving practices. Increasingly, businesses and their workers are relying on AI to take safety beyond what was previously possible to help mitigate these injuries.
The VIA Mobile360 AI Forklift Safety Kit is playing an important role in preventing work place accidents and unnecessary damage to valuable goods and equipment by using its rich visual intelligence and smart detection features. Unsafe operating behavior, such as smoking, phone usage, or fatigued driving, can be detected by the sophisticated Driver Monitoring System (DMS) which uses AI to identify and alert drivers of these dangerous operator behaviors.
Another feature the safety kit also offers is a holistic view of the forklift’s surrounding through the Surround View System (SVS) which gives complete 360° views to boost driver situational awareness. SVS also features tiered alerts when objects and people get too close to the vehicle.
By offering objective coaching, and complete views, forklift operators, and those working alongside on the warehouse floor, gain a greater sense of security knowing there is an extra pair of eyes looking out for their best interest, making the job safer, and promoting job skills development.
While metal robots with glowing red eyes make for charismatic on-screen villains, it’s important to keep oneself grounded in reality when thinking about the potential and practical applications of AI. While thought leaders may contend that AI, for better or worse, is set to change our future in unimaginable ways, let’s not forget the very real ways this technology is helping us today. For now, AI is typecast. It’s a convenient foe. This much is true. But off the movie set, it’s saving lives, making life safer, and doing more to help humans than we give it credit for. Lucky for us, unlike humans, AI doesn’t do it for the credit.
Written by Sean Gaffney, Marketing Specialist at VIA, writing about the crossroads of tech, culture, and arts.