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Documentaries & Non-Fiction Series

Plot Twist: NOVA’s “A.I. Revolution” Highlights the Beneficial Uses of Artificial Intelligence for Humanity… Although It Still Might Wipe Us Out (One Day) 

Plot Twist: NOVA’s “A.I. Revolution” Highlights the Beneficial Uses of Artificial Intelligence for Humanity… Although It Still Might Wipe Us Out (One Day)

Considering the doom and gloom pervading the US — and the world — right now (and the topic at hand), it was almost impossible not to write a clickbait headline. In addition, the mainstream media presents AI as a malevolent force that will eventually rise up or fight back and enslave or outright kill humanity sometime in the future. In fact, when NOVA correspondent Miles O’Brien first got the assignment, he asked if the angle would be “AI taking over the world” and some friends assumed he was doing a scary piece. But NOVA wanted him “to find the middle ground, figure out what’s good, bad, and indifferent and what we should be concerned about. It was a real privilege to have that opportunity,” he explained. “Like any technology, it’s neutral. There are going to be some good things, there are going to be some scary things and we have to address it.”

But if the public as a whole perceives AI to be a threat, they definitely haven’t been hearing about all the revolutionary advances different types of AI have made possible. This misunderstanding of AI’s capabilities is exactly the reason Miles decided to tackle this topic. “Legacy media doesn’t do a great job of covering the nuance,” he revealed. “We could go on about the motivations for all of that and the fact that anything with a hint of doom in it will get a click.” Because the media seems more interested in the negative aspects of AI, “[they] completely overlook all the really interesting tools that this is creating to solve other complex problems we face.”

Climate change.

“What I see is a race right now between the benefits that AI can bring to us as we try to solve climate change, which is, after all, an existential threat,” Miles emphasized.

Alert California was born out of a program that paired CAL FIRE with scientists at UC San Diego to train a neural network to spot early signs of fire. With over 1,000 active cameras at their disposal that could be controlled remotely, they were able to gather massive amounts of information for the network. Based on that, dispatchers can organize a fast response to the problem and potentially avert huge wildfires.

Diagnosing cancer.

“If you’re looking at a device, a pattern recognition technology, which can spot a breast cancer tumor long before a human eye could ever detect it, five, six years before — that really gets my attention. I lost my mother and my sister to breast cancer. So imagine if they had had that technology employed in their case,” Miles explained.

After computer scientist Regina Barzilay was diagnosed with breast cancer, she shifted her focus from deciphering dead languages to co-developing a model to diagnose tumors in breasts. Previously, the weakness in the system had been the human eye. By using a convolutional neural network in machine learning to look at thousands of mammograms, the program was better able to recognize patterns that resulted in detecting tumors quickly and more accurately. At the end of the day, the hope is that these tools can catch cancer early enough to help develop drugs to prevent it as opposed to having to treat the disease at an advanced stage.

Other medical applications.

“As I get the assignment, I happen to be shopping for a new arm. To the NOVA people, I said, ‘I just had surgery on my stump in order to make it possible for the electrical signals to really be interpreted well by an AI-driven arm.’ And I said, ‘You’re not going to believe this, but just literally this moment, I’m looking at an artificial intelligence application, which couldn’t be nearer and dearer to me — my arm. I said, ‘Should we address that in the film?’ And they were actually pretty enthusiastic about that idea. So I had a personal stake in a lot of this stuff,” Miles revealed.

It’s refreshing to see Miles’ warts-and-all experience with his Coapt technology. The electrodes can read the signals from Miles’ muscles to make the arm work, but it’s very much a trial-and-error process in supervised learning and the tech doesn’t always work as predicted or planned. “When you talk about something in the first person and you’re telling a personal story, it’s different. [AI]’s not a panacea,” he stressed and “it hasn’t been simple.” So, it’s important to represent exactly what AI is and what it’s not. But ultimately, “it really can have a meaningful impact on people’s lives. What better opportunity to tell that story than through my own personal experience?”

While Miles ultimately hopes people “have kitchen table conversations about the good things AI might be able to do for us,” the film also explores how AI can be exploited for bad intentions.

I remember seeing this photo and being very impressed with the pontiff’s style. While the deepfake image is seemingly harmless, we know AI can be deployed for much darker purposes as well. Scientists “have to be optimistic about what they do in order to pursue what they do. They see the possibilities,” Miles shared. “It is not a zero chance that AI coupled with robotic technology could one day truly take over” according to some AI experts. Yoshua Bengio, an AI pioneer, warns us that AI could pose a risk of human extinction and we have to take his concerns seriously. In this film Miles is trying “to thread a needle between the good, the bad, the ugly, and the potential existential threat.” He emphasized that “it’s really important to listen to [Yoshua], but to listen to him carefully. What he’s saying is this is not a tomorrow problem. This is a down the road problem. People have to understand that this is not something that’s going to create Skynet and The Terminator tomorrow. But his point is well taken.”

Ultimately, “there are going to be some good things, there are going to be some scary things and we have to address it.” While AI isn’t all good or all bad, it is a big technological revolution that can be used in many ways and should require guardrails. While the potential benefits to society and humanity should encourage scientists to continue developing AI, we should proceed carefully. “After all that has transpired in our world, if people are taking things at face value on the web, shame on them. Shame on them. It is all our responsibility as citizens to inject a little bit of skepticism in what we see and read,” Miles cautioned. Trust. But verify.

For a deeper dive into the lively and engaging discussion Miles O’Brien and I had on the (mostly) good and (sometimes) bad applications and implications of AI, click the audio link below.

Watch NOVA’s “A.I. Revolution” on PBS now or stream it anytime on

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