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Building a sustainable future through artificial intelligence

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When Jim Al-Khalili took to the stage recently as the new head of the British Science Association, his message was clear. The march of artificial intelligence (AI) was happening far faster than the political and moral debates that surround it. It was not an original concern. The Bank of England has warned huge numbers of people will be affected by the changes coming, which will result in a need for a revolution in our skillsets in order to avoid swathes becoming unemployed. Evidence of the shift is already apparent - French supermarket chain Carrefour is to use AI software to anticipate demand for products, cutting down on waste

But while there is no shortage of people voicing concerns about the progress of AI, there are many evangelists, eager to point out the vast number of possibilities that can benefit humankind and allow us to work less and smarter, resulting in longer lives. Dubbed the 'Fourth Industrial Revolution', the World Economic Forum has described the merging of physical, digital and biological worlds as having huge promise which can help people, businesses and communities together.

While there is no shortage of people voicing concerns about the progress of AI, there are many evangelists, eager to point out the vast number of possibilities that can benefit humankind …

So in this brave new world, will AI help build a sustainable future?


Where we are

The effects of AI are already all around us - from the Siri voice command on an iPhone to the spam filter on an email account. In essence, artificial intelligence is anything achieved by a computer which, if done by a human, would need some level of intellect. It is an ancient concept, stretching back almost 3,000 years when Greek poets Hesiod and Homer brought in conceptions of robots. The story of Talos told of a giant bronze man built by the Greek god of invention, Hephaestus, who threw boulders at approaching enemy ships
 

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From those early beginnings, we are now at another juncture. The artificial intelligence that we are used to experiencing on our phones and laptops is dubbed 'narrow' or 'weak' AI in that it can do a functional task such as driving a car or recognising a numberplate. The next stage is a significant development from this - Artificial General Intelligence (AGI). This is a more flexible intelligence, akin to what humans have, and capable of performing a number of different tasks where reason also comes into play. When the Doomsday scenario of AI is seen on television, such as the Terminator cyborgs, it is this AGI stage that is being envisaged. While the debate over the implications of AGI has already started, the reality is that most scientists don't believe it will be developed for use for another 30 to 50 years.

The artificial intelligence (AI) that we are used to experiencing on our phones and laptops is dubbed 'narrow' or 'weak' AI. The next stage is a significant development - Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) is a more flexible intelligence, akin to what humans have, where reason also comes into play.


The benefits for us

The concerns about the progress of AI are well-documented. Given less prominence are the potential benefits, although there are many, and how they will create a more sustainable future through digitisation. 

Much like when societies moved from agricultural to industrial economies, there will be a shift in the nature of what people will work at but not necessarily in the number of jobs. A study from Accenture recently found new categories of jobs such as trainers and explainers are now being created in order to deal with the transition. With the shift towards automation will come enhanced productivity, delivering savings to companies across areas such as manufacturing, but also taking humans away from repetitive tasks and instead shifting them towards more intellectual-driven skillsets, allowing for more growth in companies and reduced inequalities amongst staff. The shift is best illustrated by how banking has been changing with staff now focusing more on decisions rather than the collation of data which can be done by machine.

With the shift towards automation will come enhanced productivity, delivering savings to companies across areas such as manufacturing, but also taking humans away from repetitive tasks and instead shifting them towards more intellectual-driven skillsets, allowing for more growth in companies and reduced inequalities amongst staff.

Outside of the workplace, the benefits of digitisation span from healthcare to disaster assistance. NASA satellites currently scan the earth once a day to spot forest fires that may not have been reported yet, detecting them via thermal imaging. While this process can take three hours to relay the information, a new AI project has begun to bring the information in near real-time so that fire crews can tackle blazes before they have been reported. The Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory has meanwhile created an algorithm which can recognise skin cancer by feeding 130,000 images into a system so that diagnosis will eventually be able to be made remotely via smartphone. It is projects such as these that work to illustrate clearly how the advance of AI will help both of the health of the planet and those living on it.
 

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But still there are concerns

Some of the benefits that have been identified, such as the reduced number of human interactions in a process, are issues many would identify as problems. When a Tesla car crashed in California last year, killing its driver, the idea of an AI which can operate in an error-free way was immediately put under a cloud. 

A linked problem is the idea that AI will absolve us of responsibility, that we can simply blame the mistakes on the machines, bringing about images of unaccountable robots in a battlefield. It is here where regulation and legal constraints will come under particular focus as the science develops.

A linked problem is the idea that AI will absolve us of responsibility, that we can simply blame the mistakes on the machines, bringing about images of unaccountable robots in a battlefield.

A question of balance

In an area full of hype and foreboding, balance is key. Concern about the advance of digitisation is not confined to sceptics. Over 8,000 researchers, engineers and executives with the AI space recently signed a letter saying that focus in the area should take account of the social impact and ensure that human values are maintained at all times. It is through maintaining those values that artificial intelligence has the possibility of improving healthcare, infrastructure and eradicating inequality for all of society.
 

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It is through maintaining human values that artificial intelligence has the possibility of improving healthcare, infrastructure and eradicating inequality for all of society.

Perhaps the most unexpected endorsement in AI has come from Amnesty International, which has called for the strong possibilities to be embraced and used to work towards an end to discrimination. Former Secretary General Salil Shetty said that by taking steps to have ethical development within AI, there could be systems in the future which take human bias out of decision making, where there are clear legal responsibilities laid down for users and where human rights are a core design feature. "This is a future where the enormous power and potential of AI is harnessed for the good of humanity, promoting equality, freedom and justice," he said.

Healthcare is expected to become more efficient by the use of AI through the wide analysis of data from patients, the early identification of conditions and optimising clinical trials. Danish AI company Corti SA has created software which can analyse the words of a caller during an emergency 999 call to identify whether someone has had a heart attack faster than a human can, illustrating the surprising levels the technology can now reach.  

The future development of AI will continue to polarise and debate about regulation will be on-going. But outside of the concerns lie opportunities for the advancement of equality and building a more sustainable future for humanity.

A future investment for all

The future development of AI will continue to polarise and debate about regulation will be on-going. But outside of the concerns lie opportunities for the advancement of equality and building a more sustainable future for humanity. It is through investing in companies which are advancing the boundaries of medical science and healthcare for all, creating systems that increase efficiencies in supermarkets, banks and shops which will allow workers to focus less on lifting and more on thinking that we will build a better and more sustainable future for the planet. At Lombard Odier, we believe that sustainability is the future of business. As our chief economist Samy Chaar says: "It is normal to be fearful of things. It is also a bit too easy to be afraid of everything.”

Important information

This document is issued by Bank Lombard Odier & Co Ltd or an entity of the Group (hereinafter “Lombard Odier”). It is not intended for distribution, publication, or use in any jurisdiction where such distribution, publication, or use would be unlawful, nor is it aimed at any person or entity to whom it would be unlawful to address such a document. This document was not prepared by the Financial Research Department of Lombard Odier.

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