The years 2020 and 2021 have already been eclipsed by Covid-19. As we enter 2022, the Omicron variant has risen, giving a sense of deja vu . The pandemic has, however, played a critical role in giving an accelerated impetus to use of technology in our lives. For instance, BlueDot, an artificial intelligence (AI) platform, was the first to flag an “unusual pneumonia” in Wuhan.

AI has been enhancing our capabilities in ways never witnessed in the past. The recent advancements in AI promise to augment the cognitive capabilities of human-beings. The evolution of an advanced human species called ‘Transhumans’ has already started taking place. Transhumans are people who have been artificially enhanced with mental and/or physical abilities beyond what is considered normal for the species from an evolutionary standpoint. The spellcheck feature of any word processor is the simplest example of augmentation of the language skills of humans with the help of machines. The use of Google Maps is another example of augmentation of navigational capabilities using machines.

In 1997, IBM’s Deep Blue made history by being the first computer to beat a world chess champion — Garry Kasparov, that is. Deep Blue’s win was considered symbolically significant — a sign that AI was catching up with human intelligence. However, Kasparov, undeterred by the defeat, understood the potential of machines and introduced freestyle chess to bring together human and computer skills. In freestyle chess, each player uses a computer chess program to explore the possible results of candidate’s move. Despite this computer assistance, it is the human player who controls and decides the game.

AI is already helping business leaders in automating business processes, gaining insights through advanced data analytics — predictive and post-event — and engaging with customers and employees with natural-language-processing chatbots. Considering the capability of AI to process and calculate a lot more information than humans, Deep Knowledge Ventures (DKV), a venture capital firm in Hong Kong, made history in 2017 when it appointed the first AI robot, Vital, to the board of directors. DKV has decided not to make any positive investment decisions without getting approval from Vital.

Doctors need years of training and experience to correctly diagnose diseases. AI — particularly Deep Learning algorithms — have recently made huge advances in automatically diagnosing diseases, making diagnostics cheaper and more accessible. The AI-based machine can be exposed to millions of scans/images of disease for training in a couple of hours and can outperform humans in diagnosing the disease.

According to a study published in Nature ( January 2020), AI is more accurate than doctors in diagnosing breast cancer from mammograms. AI has been instrumental in expediting diagnostics, development of vaccines and treatment protocol for the Covid pandemic. AI is not likely to replace doctors outright but would augment their abilities. AI systems will be used to detect patterns for the expert — allowing the doctor to focus on the interpretation of those signals.

Similarly, AI-enabled algorithms are widely used to perform repetitive jobs, sparing human efforts for more creative jobs requiring real intelligence. We need to create an enabling environment where man and machine can work side by side and perform tasks to their full potential in a way that compensates for the other’s weaknesses and complements the other’s strengths. The combination of human intelligence plus AI should be greater than the sum of the parts. As AI increases in size and scale, the artificial augmentation of human capabilities has the potential to transform the way we live, work, and spend our time.

Need for control

On the flip side, AI is becoming too powerful to be left as an unleashed force. The late Stephen Hawking had also expressed apprehensions that future developments in AI “could spell the end of the human race.” According to Professor Yuval Noah Harari, historian, philosopher and best-selling author of Sapiens and Homo Deus , AI will create a “useless class” of humans.

The AI-enabled algorithms are often criticised for being biased against certain sections of society. In 2016, ProPublica reported that an AI tool used in courtrooms across the US to predict future crimes, the Correctional Offender Management Profiling for Alternative Sanctions (COMPAS), was biased against Black defendants. In 2017, the AI algorithm, Beauty.AI, used to assess an international beauty contest in Bengaluru turned into an embarrassment, as the algorithm picked the winners solely based on skin colour.

Deep-fake is another manifestation of the possible misuse of AI. In 2018, Jordan Peel, an American comedian, used some of the latest AI techniques to create a fake video of Barack Obama commenting on President Donald Trump to demonstrate the possibilities of misuse of AI technology.

The possible biases and misuse in the AI-enabled algorithms make it more contingent to subject it to human intelligence. The augmented intelligence of humans is the best bet to harness the potential of AI. The need of the hour is, therefore, to enhance the capabilities of human beings with the support of these intelligent machines while remaining vigilant to possible ill-effects.

The writer is with CRIS, Ministry of Railways. Views are personal