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Sitra Trends: technology will be integrated into everyday life

What do we have to gain, or fear, from the rise of artificial intelligence?


Laura Halenius

Project Director, A roadmap for a Fair Data Economy, Sitra


The computing capacity of computers has risen exponentially in recent decades. Artificial intelligence (AI) is already capable of driving a car without accidents, writing good sports articles, finding cancer cells in humans better and learning to cook by watching Youtube videos.

It is clear that technology has already changed our lives radically and will continue to do so even more in the future. Microsoft’s Cortana, Apple’s Siri, IBM’s Watson and Google’s Google Now are only the beginning in the race to develop artificial intelligence.

But what are the kinds of things that technological advances will have an effect on in the years to come?

Debating artificial intelligence ethics

Dozens of scientists, entrepreneurs and investors published an open letter a while ago, expressing their concern about artificial intelligence developments. Although there were some big headlines in the tabloid press, the writers’ primary concern was not an apocalypse brought about by robots. In fact, they viewed artificial intelligence development more as an opportunity than a threat. The writers were more concerned about citizens’ privacy in the future, not who controls technological development. The letter stresses the importance of sitting down to think about what would be the wisest course of action for humans in terms of artificial intelligence development.

We have just reached a point where the ethics of AI is a natural topic of debate. Last June was the first time that a computer program imitating a human passed the test devised in 1950 by British mathematician and computer pioneer Alan Turing to tell apart artificial and human intelligence. The test carried out in London measured the ability of the artificial intelligence program to have a conversation with humans. A computer program called Eugene Goostman developed by researchers with Russian backgrounds managed to convince the jury that they were talking with a 13-year-old Ukrainian boy.

Computers imitating humans will develop at huge speed in the near future, because researchers have more and more material to feed to them: the internet is full of videos, blogs and public discussions that can be fed into the programs to make them learn human logic.

Future programs may be a source of joy and benefit: applications can be used for customer service, for carers in nursing institutions or for keeping older people with dementia company. Then again, there are also difficult underlying ethical issues to take into account. Is it right that a robot, and not a human, is looking after a person with dementia? Do online shop customers have to be told if they are being served by a computer? The best way to avoid any pitfalls involving new technology is to listen to the opinions and wishes of their future users. And of course any new technology is also susceptible to misuse. If there are computer programs which cannot be told apart from humans, it would be a surprise if the criminal element were not interested.

Will AI make experts time-management lords?

Although there has been heated debate about the risks of artificial intelligence and digitisation on the whole recently, there is also huge potential. Fields in particular where large amount of data is processed – such as healthcare, research and legal science – are ideally suited to digital applications. We are probably not too far from the nearest healthcare centre being found on your smartphone. Health and well-being mobile applications, consulting doctors via video calls and measuring one’s own vital signs already form a routine part of everyday life for many Finnish people.

Harnessing digital medical data for extensive and active use in illness prevention will represent a major breakthrough for the health sector. IBM’s supercomputer Watson is a good example of advanced technology that is helping people. “Doctor Watson” enables you to read electronic patient records, filter and analyse patient information effectively and make summaries, among other things. Watson may also assist doctors in suggesting treatment procedures. With artificial intelligence in charge of the laborious process of going through patient data, the doctor has more time to concentrate on the actual treatment. 

Many mobile applications will also change healthcare as we know it – and save huge sums of money. The European Commission has recently financed an ”electronic nose” that will enable the detection of illnesses at an early stage by means of a mobile phone. The user simply exhales towards the phone and sensors will find symptoms of potential illnesses. When available, this piece of equipment that resembles a breathalyser may revolutionise cancer diagnostics. Information technology will not only open up vast vistas for next-generation healthcare but will also provide aid for daily matters.

Internet of Things and smart cities to make a breakthrough

It will not be so long in the future when smart fridges will realise that certain items are running out and automatically add them to a shopping list. When going to the shop, the customer will take a smart shopping trolley that will show the way to the correct aisle and automatically calculate the price for the shopping.

This is called the Internet of Things, a system whereby pieces of equipment communicate with each other through the internet. The Internet of Things will radically change the way we act, work and live. This change is only beginning, but already affects society in a number of ways.

An even greater change is on the horizon. The Internet of Things will spread gradually throughout the entire infrastructure. The smart city will use the internet to adjust energy use, the flow of traffic and traffic jams – and trade – based on supply and demand or, say, the weather. Smart city waste bins will inform the authorities when they need emptying and smart devices will tell you when you have to head for the bus stop in order to make it to your destination in time.

The Spanish city of Santander, with a population of 18,000, provides an example of what future smart cities could be like. The 12,000 sensors installed across the city measure things that are important to people. The sensors can be found in the tarmac, on buses, street lights, waste bins, among other things, measuring pollution, finding the nearest parking spot and telling the dustman which bins need emptying. The sensors also dim the lights on streets where nobody is moving. Santander has already made considerable savings in terms of energy, for example, thanks to the new technology.

Finland is also taking its first steps toward smart cities, among the first being the district of Kalasatama in Helsinki, where a new residential area is being built that is testing ICT technology and data in order to provide new smart solutions, including the remote operation of electrical appliances inside homes by means of mobile phones. Residents can use mobile applications to check whether they have left the cooker or the lights on, or  – this being Finland – to turn on the sauna.

The purpose of smart city projects is to make the residents more satisfied, boost business and create savings. On the other hand, what will happen to privacy when sensors make a note of our every move?  Data collected on individuals may pose a threat to privacy. It is estimated that information on people living in Finland can already be found in 150 to 200 systems, a figure that is unlikely to reduce in the next few years.

There are groups in Finland, too, that are concerned about citizens’ freedom and rights in a world that is becoming more and more digitised. Government control and the use of data to promote financial interests behind the scenes are challenges to which the traditional ways of defining the relationship between the state, businesses and individuals no longer apply.

Further information

Jeremy Howard: The wonderful and terrifying implications of computers that can learn

Eric Horvitz on the new era of Artificial Intelligence

Research Priorities for Robust and Beneficial Artificial Intelligence: an Open Letter

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