Eight good news stories about AI

From mind-reading health benefits to speaking to animals and deceased loved ones

AI has gone mainstream in the past year
Massive advances in AI and machine learning have been made in the past decade
(Image credit: Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The rapid spread of Artificial Intelligence (AI) programmes is sparking doomsday predictions ranging from mass lay-offs to the end of humankind.

According to the latest Artificial Intelligence Index from the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence, public scepticism about the potential benefits of AI is highest in Western countries such as the UK, Germany, France and US, the home of Silicon Valley. By contrast, the overwhelming majority of people from the world’s two most populus nations, China and India, felt that the positives of AI outweighed the drawback.

Like any major technological advancement, the impact of AI will be mixed. But "whether you like it or not, AI is here and here to stay", said Forbes. "With responsible development and use, AI can vastly improve our world."

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Here are a handful examples of how AI may have significant benefits.

Predicting solar storm

Nasa is currently working on a new computer model that combines AI and satellite data to sound the alarm for dangerous space weather.

According to Nasa, the model, which is called Dagger (or Deep Learning Geomagnetic Perturbation) "uses AI to analyse spacecraft measurements of the solar wind… and predict where an impending solar storm will strike, anywhere on Earth, with 30 minutes of advance warning". 

This would be useful, Nasa says, because it could provide "just enough time" to prepare for these storms and try to mitigate the damage they could do to power grids and other critical infrastructure.

The most serious solar storms present a serious threat to Earth. The 1859 "Carrington Event", named after Richard Carrington, the British astronomer who documented it, disrupted the planet's communications systems, causing pylons to spark and giving electric shocks to telegraph operators. 

Today, a solar storm of a similar scale would be potentially "catastrophic", said The Telegraph. "Such is the modern world's reliance on vulnerable electrical power and communications systems, a direct hit would [have] economic and social consequences comparable to those of the recent pandemic".

Using AI to make predictions about solar storms is "extremely important", said Science Alert. The "combined speed of prediction with the ability to apply those predictions to an entire globe makes Dagger a considerable step forward". 

Improving education

Prominent tech companies, executives and billionaires have been hailing AI chatbots as "education game-changers", said The New York Times. The tools, they say, will "revolutionise, and automatically personalise, student learning".

According to Forbes, AI teaching offers numerous advantages, including the ability to act like an "infinitely patient grandmother, never rushing or giving up and going on to the next thing". It could also improve retention, by personalising learning to make sure information is going in.

Despite this, the release of AI tools like ChatGPT, created an "initial panic from the education sector [which] was understandable", said MIT Technology Review. Several leading universities in the UK, including Imperial College London and the University of Cambridge, warned students against using ChatGPT to cheat. 

But after the concern died down, the outlook has gradually become "a lot less bleak". Universities have embraced the fact that advanced chatbots "could be used as powerful classroom aids that make lessons more interactive, teach students media literacy, generate personalised lesson plans, save teachers time on admin, and more". 

Consequently, MIT said, it looks likely that "ChatGPT is going to change education, not destroy it."

Mind-reading for health gains

"One of AI’s biggest potential benefits is to help people stay healthy so they don’t need a doctor, or at least not as often," said PWC. AI is already being used to detect diseases earlier and with "more accuracy". For example, AI software can interpret mammograms and translate patient data into diagnostic information to determine breast cancer risk "30 times faster" than human doctors, "with 99% accuracy, reducing the need for unnecessary biopsies".

US researchers are also developing an AI-decoder that can translate brain activity into a continuous stream of text, "a breakthrough that allows a person’s thoughts to be read non-invasively for the first time", reported The Guardian’s science correspondent Hannah Devlin. The advance, outlined in a paper in Nature Neuroscience, raises the prospect of new ways to restore speech in patients struggling to communicate due to a stroke or motor neurone disease.

Analysing climate data

AI "as a tool is uniquely positioned to help manage" the "complex issues" surrounding climate change and its impact on environmental, social and economic systems worldwide, said Boston Consulting Group. AI programmes can "gather, complete and interpret large, complex datasets on emissions" and more, and "help identify the most at-risk regions".

More specifically, AI can be used in hazard forecasting for long-term events such as sea-level rises, and for immediate, extreme events such as hurricanes. For example, the World Economic Forum reported that an application by San Francisco-based company Pano AI scans video feeds from mountaintop cameras to "detect wildfires, alert homeowners and assist fire crews in controlling the fires".

Detecting infant blindness

A recent AI-led breakthrough could pave the way to more effectively detect a leading cause of blindness in children. In a study published in The Lancet Digital Health, an international team of scientists and clinicians revealed how they had developed a deep learning model to identify which at-risk infants have retinopathy of prematurity (ROP). The condition occurs when abnormal blood vessels grow in the retina of premature babies, and can lead to blindness if left untreated.

"Symptoms of ROP cannot be seen by the naked eye, meaning the only way to identify the condition is by monitoring infants at risk with eye exams," said University College London, which co-led the study. But an AI tool that was trained using thousands of images of the eyes of newborns "was found to be as effective as senior pediatric ophthalmologists in discriminating normal retinal images from those with ROP”.

Decoding animal language

AI and machine learning has long helped analyse and translate human language, but now researchers are making major steps in decoding how animals communicate, which experts say could significantly advance ecological research and conservation efforts. For instance, in 2021, researchers used audio recordings to identify a new species of blue whales in the Indian Ocean. "Each blue whale population has a distinct vocal signature, which can be used to distinguish and monitor different ‘acoustic populations’ or ‘acoustic groups’," the international team explained in an article in Nature.

California-based non-profit Earth Species Project (ESP) is also using AI to identify patterns in large data sets of visual, oral and physical animal communications. CEO and co-founder Katie Zacarian told the World Economic Forum earlier this year that with the progress being made, "we are moving rapidly toward a world in which two-way communication with another species is likely".

Helping with grief

AI-powered technology is also being used to "develop chatbot avatars of people’s deceased relatives, preserving their memories and helping with grief", reported Euronews.

In 2021, an article in the San Francisco Chronicle detailing how a freelance writer trained an AI chatbot to impersonate his dead fiance received widespread attention. Less than two years later, as advanced AI programmes such as ChatGPT emerge, "grief tech" is a rapidly expanding field.

California-based company HereAfter AI invites users to upload audio, images and videos of late loved ones to an app to create a "life story avatar" that chats on demand in the voice of the deceased. Another California start-up, StoryFile, "records footage and audio prior to a person’s death and then makes it interactive through the power of conversational AI and a holographic avatar", said Euronews.

Lucy Selman, associate professor in palliative and end-of-life care at Bristol University, told the Financial Times that tackling grief in such ways "won’t be for everyone". Research was needed into the ethics of such AI-powered tech and whether it might be harmful in delaying or prolonging grief, she said, but it is an “interesting advance".

Protecting rivers

Proponents of AI say it has a multiplicity of positive uses; and now wildlife experts have identified a new one. They say the kind of facial recognition technology that is used at airports could be adapted to prevent invasive fish from colonising British rivers. There is growing concern that pink salmon are establishing breeding colonies in UK rivers, threatening native Atlantic salmon and potentially disrupting fragile ecosystems, reported The Telegraph. Norwegian experts have had similar concerns – and have developed AI river gates to keep the fish out. The software has been trained to recognise the distinct features of the invaders. If the AI concludes that the fish coming up the river are Atlantic salmon, the gates open. If it decides they are pink salmon (which have distinctive humped backs), the gates stay closed and the fish are diverted to a holding tank and taken back out to sea.

Introduced into Russian rivers in the 1950s, pink salmon were rarely observed in British rivers until 2015, but 200 have been seen since then, and last year, their smolts (young salmon) were found in two Scottish rivers for the first time. In Norway, numbers reached 100,000 in 2021, and they are likely to hit a million this year.

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