The revolution in artificial intelligence is everywhere around us now

What is artificial intelligence, commonly known as AI?

Perhaps you think it is a silly sci-fi concept, but you’ve probably heard it mentioned frequently and you just don’t get it. Many people are confused about AI because we associate it with the movies: “Star Wars,” “2001: A Space Odyssey” or even “The Jetsons.” But these are fictional stories and AI is anything but fictional. It can be confusing because it is such a broad topic, including everything from your smartphone to self-driving cars. Some people think AI and robots are the same thing, but they are not. AI is what powers the computer inside the robot.

The term AI was first coined in 1956 by John McCarthy. So why is it getting so much attention now? There are several reasons. Even though researchers in the 1950s thought they could build a computer that could mimic the human brain in about 10 years, realistically it has turned out to be far more complicated than they thought at the time. However, in the last few years, several remarkable breakthroughs have heightened expectations again.

The first reason is the kind of breakthrough exemplified by IBM’s Watson computer built with artificial intelligence. At Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, Watson suggests treatment programs for patients by reading through patient records, published studies and pharmaceutical data. The computer presents its findings in a “probabilistic” manner showing which treatments offer the best chance of success for an individual patient. A doctor normally reads about a half dozen medical research papers in a month, whereas Watson can read half a million in about 15 seconds. When you consider that one in five medical diagnoses are wrong or incomplete, Watson can dramatically alter the survival rate of many patients. Watson is being used in many different fields and is an example of AI that is moving much closer to what is called “artificial general intelligence” or machines that can master the same kinds of tasks as humans.

The second reason is, AI is emerging in several forms that have the potential to help seniors live safely for longer. One of those technologies is monitoring devices: wearable devices and remote devices, and among them devices that cannot even be sensed or detected by the subject whom they are monitoring. These technologies could ensure senior citizens can be monitored around the clock to determine how serious a fall is or even to predict one. Depth sensors mounted on walls could detect subtle changes in elderly people including walking patterns or an increased shakiness and automatically alert family members or health-care professionals. Conversational AI devices, like Amazon’s Alexa, could potentially be used to remind people to take their medicines and store previous conversations to help people with Alzheimer’s via memory games.

The third reason AI is so much in the news is because of the potential impact on working and jobs. A 2013 University of Oxford study concluded “that of the 702 occupations listed in the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 47 percent are at high risk of significant automation because of advances in machine learning … and artificial intelligence.” Careers in medicine, law, finance, as well as warehouse and factory jobs will all be impacted. It behooves us all to understand AI, how fast the changes are coming and what it will mean for the livelihoods of our children and grandchildren.

Pat Smith is a retired IT executive who facilitates courses on robotics and artificial intelligence at the University of Denver’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute for adults 50 and older. For more information on the program, known as OLLI at DU, contact or 720-339-1379.

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