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Artificial intelligence, or AI, not so long ago was a thing of science fiction. Spaceship captains were relying on it to navigate through “wormholes” or to understand other species inhabiting the wide universe. Today we are all spaceship captains in a way. We use AI to solve problems in our everyday lives – to find the fastest way between our home address and our workplace, to read web pages written in another language, to look up information we need and for a host of other purposes.
The spread of AI is frequently applauded for making things a lot easier and a lot less time-consuming. This, however, comes with a price. AI poses great ethical, social and legal challenges and threats to our societies. These challenges and threats should be carefully considered, mitigated, and in some cases, eliminated.
What then is AI?
When we talk about “AI”, we talk about algorithms that simulate human intelligence, by mimicking behaviors like “learning” and “problem solving”. The “normal” computer programs we used when only Commander Spock had access to AI were written by some smart programmer and that was the end of the story – the code was not changing itself. AI-based programs are different, they are “trained” on huge datasets by scientists and during this training they acquire new features and capabilities.
Now, let's consider the 10 ways in which artificial intelligence impacts or will probably very shortly impact our everyday lives, ranging between the good, the bad, and the ugly.
1. Facial recognition technology
Facial recognition technology has gradually become our everyday experience, either through CCTVs mounted in public places or facial recognition technologies that come with smartphones. In smartphones, the AI capability is normally used for locking and unlocking access. The data does not leave your device, it is just there to save you the time of typing in a password or code. That sounds pretty innocent, right? Well, it could be worse, but it is far from being innocent. Others may unlock your phone when you are sleeping by simply showing it your face. The technology may be bypassed, making data stored on your phone accessible to unauthorized people. It also may normalize face-scanning, making the idea of your face being scanned by others less and less disturbing.
Connected to CCTVs, the technology is usually justified by ‘security concerns’. There are questions about the efficacy of the technology in preventing crime. But even a perfectly functioning facial recognition system, one that would not involve systemic discrimination (as our current systems seem to) would be unacceptable. Such systems threaten privacy, right to anonymity, and personal freedom. One cannot live a good life under constant surveillance, cannot freely express and share their potentially controversial or government-critical views, cannot simply be who they are.
2. Sex robots/sex bots
While chances are that you have not seen one yet in its physical reality, AI-powered sex toys are now hitting the markets. According to the inventors and producers, such toys are harmless, and as a matter of fact, using them can be therapeutic in helping curb negative mental health outcomes. Some beleive that such robots will eliminate sexual harrasment and other related offences by offering men and women a venue to ventilate their inordinate urges.
3. Robotic chefs
Believe it or not, robotic chefs are also out there already on the market. While right now the technology is not cheap, it may scale in the coming years, just like automatic check-out machines became well spread in supermarkets. (By the way, did you know that the wife of the guy who invented ATM machines never uses those but goes to her local branch to get her money? Technology may make things quicker but the lack of random human interactions can be detrimental to the quality of our lives.) The technology could make quite a number of people in hospitality superfluous and, for the little jobs that will be left, there might be the problem of occupational hazards and its attendant legal implications.
That being said, the big elephant in the room will be privacy concerns. What happens when sensors and cameras that feed data to the automated system record sensitive personal information of customers and or employees; allowing such customization might mean realizing vital medical records like allergy or illness for which absolute confidentiality is the acceptable solution.
4. Personalized shopping
How does Amazon know that I was just thinking about purchasing that pair of white Nikes? AI technology is widely used by online shopping sites to create tailored recommendations for the customer. Sites glean your browsing history, preferences, and interests, also tracking your activity across other companies’ apps and websites. Using AI, brands can more intelligently and efficiently scan through petabytes of data to predict customer behavior, and offer relevant and helpful recommendations to individual consumers.
This level of intelligence is vital in delivering a personalized shopping experience for the consumer. Is this a good thing? It is extremely comfortable, for sure. However, it is certainly very concerning how much data tech companies gather on us and how their profiling, coupled with financial interests, can turn against us. Also, don’t you want to think outside the box sometimes and make some bold clothing choices? How about, for example, neon-pink Vans with a zebra pattern?
5. Digital voice assistants
Digital voice assistance is a tool we all use now and then and is found in most smartphones. They let the user conduct a search using a speech command, as well as retrieve information via voice synthesis. In quite many homes in the first world, there are also separate digital voice assistants that are used to switch on and off the radio, to order train tickets, or to send messages to loved ones.
However, they are far from being safe to use. There are reports of digital voice assistants sending 1,700 personal audio files to another user, or recording a private conversation and sending it to a random number in the address book without permission.
6. Smart homes
Like phones, homes are becoming “smart.” Our thermostats learn about our preferences & daily habits, so that when we return from home we are welcomed by our ideal temperature. Some refrigerators create lists of what you need based on what’s missing from it and offer wine recommendations that would go with your dinner. And of course, the voice-controlled digital assistants can be connected to your smart systems and devices, so that you can say “more light” and there shall be more light.
However, smart homes can be dangerous. Your heating that works with a manual turn switch cannot be hacked. Your heating that is connected to the Internet can. Your old-school fridge cannot do anything but keep your food cold. Your smart fridge may start to mine cryptos on the side without your knowledge.
7. Sending emails and messages
Many of us send out at least one (or several) e-mails every day, and maybe more than a few text messages. AI-based predictive text functions help us compose our messages. This sometimes leads to funny exchanges (you can read quite a few of those on Bored Panda), but overall, if you write a lot of messages during the day, it can really make your life easier. However, do not think that there are absolutely no potential concerns here – the keywords your phone or computer learn may tell a lot about you if they get into the wrong hands.
8. Google internet search
Most of us can’t go a day without searching Google for an answer or a product we can’t live without. Search engines couldn’t scan the entire internet and deliver what you want without the assistance of artificial intelligence. Those ads that seem to follow you around? Yep, those are enabled by AI, are based on your search history and are personalized to you with the goal of getting items in front of you that the algorithms believe you will value.
In addition, when a search engine becomes as dominant as Google is now, it gains an enormous impact on what information we find and then find relevant. It also gains huge power over other companies that try to sell you something, for it may be a matter of thrive or collapse whether they get placed 78th in the relevance rank or 7th.
9. Streaming apps
At the end of the day, when it’s time to kick back and relax, many of us turn to streaming services such as Netflix. The company’s recommendation engine is powered by artificial intelligence and uses your past viewing history to deliver suggestions for what you might want to watch (including genres, actors, time periods, and more). Its tool gets as specific as what time of day you were watching and what you traditionally like during that time frame. Apart from making you less experimental, the recommendation systems also may pose risks for you – for example, by revealing your sexual or political preferences to those getting a glace at your screen.
The impact of AI on healthcare is far-reaching and profound. AI could help people stay healthy, so that doctors are less needed: AI-driven consumer health applications are already helping people by encouraging a healthy lifestyle. Due to its capacity for data analysis, AI is already being used to detect diseases, such as cancer, more accurately and in their early stages. In conjunction with consumer wearables & other medical devices, AI allows to oversee early-stage heart disease. This enables doctors to predict life-threatening episodes at an early stage when it might be possible to prevent such an outcome. However, the wearables may reveal sensitive information about your health (or your whereabouts) and that information may get to places you do not want them to get - for example, to potential employers.
Technology should not be vilified. It does make our lives easier, longer and happier. However, we as private citizens should be aware of the risks different systems pose to us. And we should also expect our governments and the EU to initiate and enforce regulations that protect our rights and most important interests.
For more on human rights and democracy issues in Europe, listen to Speechbag, our monthly podcast:
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