Artificial intelligence: threat or saviour?

Posted on October 08, 2018

“Although Artificial Intelligence (AI) might already appear to be magic, it’s meagre compared to what’s to come. In reality our AI is only on the very first rung of a ladder that ultimately leads to general-purpose, and fully sentient, machines.”

This was said at the University of Pretoria’s fourth Flexible Futures Conference, by Prof Peter Cochrane, Professor of Sentient Systems at the University of Sussex, Ipswich, in his keynote address, Artificial Intelligence: Threat or Saviour?

The theme of the conference was Technology-enhanced Innovation in Teaching, Learning, Assessment and Student Success Strategies. It aimed to direct attention to teaching innovation, with a focus on current innovations in the use of e-technologies in teaching and learning. The other keynote speaker was Johannes De Gruyter, Executive Director of Academic Innovation at Portland State University, United States, who spoke on Centres for Teaching and Learning in Times of Change.

Dolf Jordaan, UP Deputy Director E-Learning & Media Development; Lee Blakemore, President of Global Client Operations & Success at Blackboard Inc;  Prof Norman Duncan, UP Vice-Principal: Academic; Mark Gruzin, Blackboard’s President of Global Markets; Prof Salomé Human-Vogel, UP Deputy Dean of the Faculty of Education and  Prof  Gerrit Stols, UP Head of the Department of Science, Mathematics and Technology Education at the conference.

Prof Cochrane, who was chief technology officer of British Telecommunications, said today’s AI progress is a replay of computer history; a replay of the advent of the task-specific computers of the 1950/60s. “And we have to buy task-specific AI systems. The current generations of machines are outstanding at pattern recognition and learning, and in the past 12 months the big leap forward has been to see them eclipse their human programmers. This ability was not expected to be available for at least another decade.”

He explained that all our technologies are benign, and any risk is entirely down to people and what they might do. “In the case of AI, the advantages afforded to medical science are the most visible, and radical with dramatic improvements in diagnosis, treatment and outcomes. Lives are being saved, survival rates improved, and the quality of life for millions of people improved. At the other end of the scale, the military are now using AI in robotic weapons for the sole purpose of disabling machines and killing people.”

Prof Crochrane explained that AI is also making huge contributions to the world of commerce, finance and management. They control investments, write reports and reviews, model and predict outcomes, control production systems, conduct the testing of impossibly complex technologies, and control logistic and transport systems. “All of which we now depend upon.”

At a human dialogue level, AI is enriching lives by providing rapid access to knowledge, and solutions to complex problems and situations. “However, today’s state of play looks meagre, and is a mere ‘window’ into a much broader and more powerful future. The wider opportunity, and the essential here, is the realisation of sustainable societies and green futures.”

What is certain for Prof Cochrane is that “we can’t power into the future on the basis of polishing our old industries and processes and making them more and more efficient: such a path only slows down the rate of demise, and delays the day of reckoning. The big change needed hinges on the realisation of new materials that do not occur in nature; they're shaping and forming into products with a very high efficiency of ownership and operation during their life”.

Prof Cochrane says AI is already discovering new materials and structures, while solving problems that are way beyond human capability. “Today, we are at the peak of industry 3.0, and we can progress no further. But even so our abilities are already formidable, in that we are able to design and build over 2 billion mobile devices of incredible complexity (greater than a Cray-3 supercomputer) and ship them to global customers working across multiple networks and standards.”  AI’s ability is also reflected in every aspect of human activity – from the manufacture of furniture, domestic appliances, and office machinery, to vehicles, aircraft, and transport systems.

He said while society has progressively achieved far greater performance with far less materials at lower energy costs than ever before, this cannot continue without the fourth industrial revolution and AI.

Prof Cochrane says what most people don’t understand is that new technology spawns more powerful technology, and that is the case with AI. “Progress will not be linear, slow and predictable, it will be exponential, quantified, and it will take us by surprise. There really is only one big question to ask: Can AI rise to the challenges facing our species with increasing shortages of water, food, fuel, raw materials and energy; with climate change and rising sea levels, on a planet managed by simple-minded politics and economics?”

He says sustaining 7.5 billion people at an equitable standard of living will require greater intelligence – “And we can only do it with the help of AI – it really is a ‘fait accompli’ that will change lives, living and work!”


Keynote speaker, Johannes De Gruyter; Prof Norman Duncan; Prof Wendy Kilfoil, former UP Director for Education Innovation and Lee Blakemore at the conference.


- Author Primarashni Gower

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