Beyond self-driving cars and Google Translate software, there is much talk about how artificial intelligence (AI) technologies can be used to transform society for the better. A conference in Geneva this week is examining the pros and cons of AI, and the way forward.
Some 500 policymakers, academics and executives are gathered in Geneva this week for the inaugural “AI for Good Global Summitexternal link”, co-organized by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and the Xprize Foundationexternal link, a Silicon Valley non-profit group.
The conference has a grand title and a lofty aim – “to chart a course for AI that will benefit all of humanity”. The UN, which is represented by 20 agencies such as the children’s fund UNICEF, wants to refocus AI on sustainable developmentexternal link and see how it can contribute to global efforts to eliminate poverty and hunger, and to protect the environment.
“Artificial Intelligence has the potential to accelerate towards a dignified life, in peace and prosperity, for all people,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres told event attendees in a video address. “The time has arrived for all of us – governments, industry and civil society – to consider how AI will affect our future.”
AI has been steadily grabbing the headlines. Last month, a Google AI programme defeated a Chinese grand master at the ancient board game Go. Unbeknownst to many people, forms of AI are already transforming daily lives.
“It’s all around us. It’s not the future but is already happening,” declared Jürgen Schmidhuberexternal link, scientific director of the Swiss AI laboratory, whose researchers have developed software for companies like Apple, Google, Microsoft and Amazon. “All of us have AI in our pockets when we use our smartphones to do speech recognition.”
Yoshua Bengioexternal link, a computer scientist from the University of Montreal, acknowledged that much progress had been made in the areas of speech recognition, and the ability of computers to recognize objects and use and understand human language.
“More researchers are studying this area, so we are making rapid progress,” he declared. “Right now there is low-hanging fruit like using Al for medical image classification, or detecting cancer cells from video.”
Facebookexternal link, for example, is mapping the world’s population by using image-recognition software to read satellite images for signs of human habitation. IBM is using AI techniques to predict pollution levelsexternal link and scientists at Stanford Universityexternal link are employing AI and satellite remote-sensing data to predict crop yields months ahead of harvest.
David Salomão, a software engineer who works at The National Communications Institute of Mozambique (INCM), has a similar idea.
“We’re trying to combine mobile telecommunications with artificial intelligence to support agriculture,” he explained. “The idea is to support farmers with automated irrigation systems that decide when to turn off or on and that can assess the moisture of the soil.”
In her conference speech in Geneva, former World Health Organization chief Margaret Chan described AI as the “new frontier” for the health sector.
“Health information is often messy and poorly structured,” she said. “It’s not systematically analysed. AI can give data structure, speed up the reading of results from electrocardiograms and give more precise predictions. This can cut down on healthcare costs.”