glass half full? half empty?
PHOTO: Kalyan Chakravarthy

Over a year ago, I started researching artificial intelligence (AI). As a marketer for a company with an advanced digital solution that uses AI-type technology, I thought it was important for me to know the competition and learn about solutions that could help me currently and in the future. Throughout my research, I found both pros and cons to AI, and it inspired me to write an article in which I argued the benefits of AI outweigh the risks. I came across that article while I was researching something else recently, and I thought it would be a good time to revisit it.

A lot has transpired since I wrote the piece in February 2017, but my argument that tech adoption is slow and therefore it will be years before AI reaches its full potential is still valid. Even though we are seeing incremental progress in the role AI plays in our day-to-day lives, the change has been so gradual that, without a bit of research, it’s hard to tell the difference between today and a year ago. But in at least one aspect, you’ll see the risks of AI now seem to outweigh the benefits.

I’m going to look at AI from two points of view: How the technology affects us in our day-to-day lives, and how it is making inroads toward real change in professions such as medical science.

AI Is Part of Our Daily Lives

AI is clearly a part of our daily lives. But does it play a much bigger role than it did a year ago? Things happen gradually, and Netflix searches and Amazon recommendations are probably incrementally better now than they were a year ago. But do these slightly improved algorithms make you worry about the future as so many AI stories suggest we should?

Many of us ask for help from personal assistants like Siri and Alexa on a daily basis now. It is wonderful and even futuristic to be able to talk to a machine and get an intelligent response. The technology is improving quickly, but to what purpose? The purpose is not to tell us the weather forecast or to play a song for us — the purpose is to advertise to us.

Related Article: Why the Benefits of Artificial Intelligence Outweigh the Risks

The Growing Risk of AI

If you’ve ever walked through Times Square, it becomes quickly clear that corporations rule the world. Times Square is a collage of marketing content which surrounds you from every angle. Because companies have to try harder and harder to rise above the noise, they are more and more willing to invest in marketing technology — and that technology is now often powered by artificial intelligence. Simultaneously, traditionally nondigital companies are investing in technology to compete in the digital era and are often looking at AI. And more often than not, those digital transformations begin with marketing.

As a marketing manager for Censhare US, my life is ruled by marketing technology. I spend half my day deleting spam with pitches for the latest and greatest personalization methods from vendors that should try some sort of personalization before marketing to me — if they actually have personalization technology. The marketing technology space is crowded, and it’s a race to create the best technology. There are some extraordinarily intelligent people at work making excellent technology, but often that technology is expensive, which is why AI is tailored for companies that can afford it or companies in the business of gathering data.

Recent events have shown us the power that data has over our daily lives — think of how the ongoing Russia probe has put a spotlight on efforts to collect data and use it against us. In light of revelations such as those, AI's impact become clear and the weight of that impact could be considered not just a risk but a legitimate threat.

Related Article: Marketers, Data Collection and the E-Word: Ethics

Where AI's Benefits Are Clear

There’s no question artificial intelligence programs are becoming smarter than humans. They are beating people in chess matches and even scoring higher than humans on IQ tests. While those scenarios seems like the scary futuristic stuff of science fiction, in my opinion it is far less scary than the way AI is used in data collection and analysis.

The medical profession is a great place to look at how AI can help, rather than harm. Both doctors and patients benefit from advanced technologies that help medical professionals do a better job of keeping people healthy.

Machine learning is essentially giving machines access to data and allowing them to learn the data. When machine learning is applied in medicine, a machine can become a superdoctor, spouting out case histories and suggesting possible treatments that could take an entire medical team weeks to think of. AI is also accelerating the development of cures for diseases like cancer.

Related Article: Exploring the Ethical and Social Implications of AI

The Glass Is Half ...

Medicine isn’t the only field successfully using AI. Any profession that relies on information and data can benefit from AI. Will AI replace paralegals? Is it going to take the place of data analysts across all fields? Maybe. But in our society, the person who can do a job best typically gets to do the job. Why should machines be any different?

Is the AI glass half empty or half full? It depends on how you look at it. Because you can scan your own groceries and there are fewer clerks is the world a worse place? Are there out-of-work grocery store clerks lamenting the machines stole their jobs? Probably. But perhaps some people who would have been clerks are doing something else.

It used to be said that robots won’t bring about the end of work because people would still be needed to repair robots. The more likely scenario is that people will work with machines to manipulate data and ensure it’s being delivered and utilized correctly.

A year after I wrote about the benefits of AI outweighing the risks, I see the argument in my original article could be incorrect. But it wasn’t AI that manipulated our data and used it against us, it was humans who used AI to collect and manipulate data. So I’m going to give myself a pass there.

It’s more fun to write about the demise of humanity than it is to write about the status quo, which 99 percent of the time is all there is to write about. People are more likely to click on a headline that says “Danger, Danger! 10 Alarming Examples of AI Gone Wild” than on a headline that says “Artificial Intelligence Continues Its Progression Into the Mainstream.

It’s easy to get caught up in the hype, but like most change, AI's progress will continue to be gradual.