How AI Benefits Society

It seems that these days you can’t turn on the news without hearing about AI. And how it’s going to improve this or that industry, or cause massive job losses, depending on who’s speaking. As usual the truth is a bit more nuanced.

Some of us talk about AI on a daily basis, read the latest research advances or work with customers on the implementation of AI systems for their business. And it’s very easy to get lost in the details and lose the big picture. I want to take a step back and talk about a few areas in which AI may help make society better.


How can AI benefit society?

From the economic perspective, AI brings benefits to a variety of industries. By enabling businesses to be more efficient, they can bring cheaper products to market. Lowering prices for consumers. Automated security or fraud detection systems prevent crime, which in turn makes our society safer. AI systems in entertainment and marketing help consumers find better products and make better entertainment experiences available. And as a result we can all watch better shows.

We are also starting to scratch the surface of benefits in industries that traditionally innovate a little bit slower. For example personalized medicine. In our current medical system (at least in the United States) it’s very expensive to get medical advice that is completely tailored to our genes and history. The implementation of AI systems that analyze our genomic patterns, activity, nutrition, treatment and drug interaction data may make healthcare cheaper and safer for everybody.

Looking at the medium term future, there are many ways in which AI will help tackle global issues like the climate change crisis. And it may help us solve problems that are beyond the current abilities of technology. AI applied to manufacturing can make processes more efficient, and thus lower toxic emissions. AI applied to transportation and self driving cars can make routes shorter and faster, and reduce the number of vehicles on the road, and the environmental impact.

How can AI benefit businesses?

The most immediate benefits of AI today will be for businesses. In particular, these benefits can be categorized in two sets: new capabilities, and cost savings.

On the capability side, AI will allow businesses to do things that were impossible to do before. For example, analyze data from millions of customers to discover hidden patterns, like changes in customer demand. A single person, or even a team of experts would never have been able to analyze for example every single purchase for a large retailer. An obvious example is fraud detection in banking services. When a credit card transaction comes in, the system may need to analyze information in a matter of milliseconds, leveraging information that is known about the customer and past transaction history. No human could do that as fast as the payment network requires.

On the cost savings side, AI allows businesses to do things cheaper by automating individual tasks that are typically done by humans. Tasks that rely on humans doing repetitive work can be replaced (or could be replaced in the near future) with AI systems. For example, processing a form which was written manually and entering the data into a computer. We have optical recognition and natural language processing systems that enable us to process these forms automatically.

Another example is inspecting a part in an assembly line in a factory. It’s a task that can be done by a manual operator, but at a cost much higher than an automated system. These tasks don’t comprise the entirety of a person’s job, but individual tasks as part of a person’s role in a business. A possible consequence is that future jobs will be more meaningful, because the repetitive mindless tasks will be done by computers.

How can AI benefit Education?

One very interesting potential application of AI is to improve education at all levels. AI can enable completely personalized curriculums. Not everybody learns the same way. An AI system can automatically adapt materials to repeat topics that may be less understood, to ensure comprehension. And it can skip topics that seem to be well understood, to prevent boredom. This can make education more engaging. These are tasks that good teachers can do today, but it’s much more expensive to have a human teacher perform them than an automated AI system, and as a result they are not available to the majority of society.

As technology becomes more and more advanced, the strain that is imposed in the educational system increases. In order to be successful students across the world need to develop more advanced skills. For example, to learn to code. AI can make this easier, and make quality education available to larger segments of society across the world.

The main benefits and disadvantages of AI

Just like any other technology, AI has benefits and disadvantages. Among the top benefits are the reduction in cost for common business processes, making products and services cheaper. This will improve the quality of living for everybody. And it will also enable mass customization across a variety of industries such as medicine and education. Which in turn will bring us all higher quality products.

AI will enable machines to do the repetitive, tedious tasks that we don’t want humans to do in the first place, at a lower cost and with less mistakes.

There are some potential disadvantages. AI may have some impact on jobs. Businesses may find that, as they become more efficient, they need less people for a specific amount of production. This is a challenge that society as a whole must tackle. We need to collaboratively find out how to prevent severe job displacement. Education programs for example are critical to enable our society and economy to continue growing, and bringing more opportunities to everybody.

Do you think there are other applications of AI that will have a big impact in society? Send me a message on LinkedIn or Twitter.

Written on July 12, 2019