Growing concern that robots will take over the world and render humans useless exaggerate the threat at hand. 

Has cognitive computing and robots rapidly evolved? Yes. Computers can now challenge humans intellectually and automate tasks previously thought impossible. 

While this sounds an alarm for many people, to me it’s exciting.

Why fear robots that just barely have the learning capacity of a two-year-old? Robots have no common sense, no memory of earlier experiences and very limited visual processing capability. 

Still many revered scientists have voiced their concerns — and justifiably. Futurist Ray Kurzweil predicted that computers will be as smart as humans by 2029 and by 2045 computers will be a billion times more powerful that unaided human intelligence. Even renowned physicist Stephen Hawking warned: “The development of full artificial intelligence (AI) could spell the end of the human race.”

And at the SXSW Interactive conference a few months ago a slew of sessions covered happy topics along the lines of “AI Armageddon: AI Jobs and Inequality” and “Will AI Augment or Destroy Humanity.” 

Will a Robot Take My Job?

Economists speculate and debate the impact robots will have on the job market. Many question just how far up the value chain these robots can climb.  

The Bank of England believes that machines might take over 80 million American and 15 million British jobs, respectively over the next 10 to 20 years, or 50 percent of the workforce in each of the two countries.

Amy Webb, a digital media futurist and founder of Webbmedia Group, predicts eight career fields are "ripe for disruption" in the next 10 to 20 years, including: toll booth operators, marketers, customer service representatives, factory workers, financial middleman and phone workers. 

But in reality, many of these job functions were already under disruption prior to the advancement of robots and cognitive computing. This doesn't paint a necessarily grim future for workers, just one that's very different. 

The employee of tomorrow will need a very different skill set than today’s employees. And that has been true in each of the major industrial and technology revolutions. 

At the end of the day a lot of the fear and uncertainty originates in a lack of understanding about the capabilities AI and machine learning offer to evolve society. Ultimately this has the potential to enhance the human race. And it’s already yielding benefits in many industries. 

Making Roads Safer 

Autonomous cars have the potential to increase safety and save millions of lives each year. As of March 2016, Google’s fleet of 23 cars have been test driven a total of 1.5 million miles. Only 14 minor collisions have occurred on public roads, with eight being the result of rear-ending while stopped at a traffic light or stop sign (i.e. the car was stationary). 

According to an independent study from the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, about 70 percent of all self-driving car crashes occurred while the cars were stopped or going less than 5 miles per hour. 

According to US government statistics, 94 percent of the 33,000 traffic fatalities each year are due to human mistakes. Autonomous cars offer a big advantage here as they are unlikely to fall asleep at the wheel, drive while under the influence, or be distracted by texting on their phones. 

In theory, autonomous cars could eliminate those mistakes and save an estimated 31,000 lives a year. Four states have already passed legislation that allows driverless cars on the road. 

Reshaping Our Retail Experience 

How many times has a retail experience left you feeling frustrated? Whether it was due to inconvenient store hours, limited stock on an item you wanted, long check out lines or hard to find knowledgeable employees, some businesses are utilizing robots with powerful cognitive and visual capabilities to reshape our retail experience. 

Startups focused on automating the retail experience are popping up all over. One example is Simbe, a San Francisco-based company initially focused on provided assistance to retail employees and shoppers by automating repetitive tasks. Its robot, called Tally, focuses on laborious tasks of auditing shelves for out-of-stock items, low stock items, misplaced items and pricing errors. Tally operates safely during normal store hours alongside shoppers and employees. 

Best Buy unveiled a robotic selling machine in a store in Manhattan’s Chelsea district named Chloe. The robot retrieves items such as DVDs and personal electronics from a racked assortment of 15,000 items and delivers them to shoppers in about 30 seconds. Chloe serves customers even after normal store hours. Pretty convenient if you need a phone charger at 2 am! 

These initial retail robotic solutions combine sensing, mobility, connectivity and analytics to provide automation of in-store operations. The real power will come in the future, as they begin to augment the full customer service experience.

Improving Our Health and Well-Being

Analysts predict a tenfold growth of the use of artificial intelligence in healthcare in the next five years, for everything from cancer diagnosis to diet tips. According to Frost and Sullivan, healthcare providers will spend $6 billion per year on artificial intelligence tools by 2021. Google, IBM and Microsoft are all investing heavily in healthcare and analysts predict 30 percent of providers will run cognitive analytics on patient data by 2018.

IBM Watson Health is a premier example of cognitive computing at work to solve difficult healthcare questions. It uses hundreds of computational techniques, including machine learning to conduct natural language processing (NLP) queries on structured and unstructured data that allows it to generate hypotheses, score evidence and return answers. 

Originally launched in collaboration with Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, IBM Watson Oncology Advisor now has an advanced ability to analyze volumes of structured and unstructured data from 290 medical journals, over 200 textbooks, 12 million pages of text and numerous clinical notes and reports to quickly select a proper treatment pathway. 

Welltok’s Caféwell Concierge leverages Watson’s cognitive capabilities to provide personalized health solutions for everyday users. Watson is also partnering with Johnson & Johnson to employ AI to assist joint replacement in patients, and medical technology company Medtronic, where it will determine which diabetes patients need assistance in keeping their blood sugar under control.

AI: The New Utility

The biggest advances in AI over the past several years have been in the accessibility of AI platforms. Previously, access to high performance cognitive computing was only a dream, reserved for large, on premises costly machines. 

AI will look a lot more like a utility in the future, much like your electricity, water or cable is today. Companies like IBM and Amazon Web Services (AWS) are building cheap, reliable, yet enterprise-grade AI, which are now appearing in many commercial platforms. 

In the future, AI has the potential to turn everyday objects into animated and fast cognitive machines. This ubiquitous AI utility will allow humans to also evolve as it deepens our memory, generates immediate recall of information, and speeds our recognition and decision making. 

The real power of AI will come when man and machine co-exist. Instead of thinking of AI as “artificial” intelligence, it should be thought of as “augmented” intelligence. That makes for a much better future, where there’s still hope for humans.