What’s artificial intelligence and what benefits does it deliver?

By Professor Simon LuceyDirector of the Australian Institute for Machine Learning, the University of Adelaide.

This article is an extract from Artificial intelligence: your questions answered, a report published in partnership with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI).  

AI refers to the capability of an entity or a machine to exhibit behaviours that resemble human intelligence. Machine learning allows AI to learn from data, offering unprecedented opportunities for analysis, mapping and prediction in any field for which data is available—language, vision, finance, medicine, science, space, agriculture and more.

There’s a lot of excitement about AI because it can work alongside us and act as a booster for human capabilities. As a productivity tool, AI replaces some of the mundane and time-consuming aspects of work, allowing us to work smarter and more efficiently. For example, AI in medicine is creating new ways to scan images and process data, freeing up clinical staff to work on important human aspects of health, such as face-to-face care of patients.

Image of an AIML engineer

In addition to its advanced AI research capability, AIML has its own engineering team to build custom AI software for clients and partners across government, industry and business. Photo: Josh Geelen / AIML.

Natural language processing is an example of an AI that’s already creating benefits for many people. Based on spoken language instructions, tools such as Siri and Alexa offer hands-free capability for playing music, making phone calls and adding to a shopping list. An AI called GPT-3 uses deep learning to produce and understand human-like text and can even write computer code.

Computer vision is an AI that gives machines the capability to recognise objects as accurately as humans can. This is creating a huge impact in fields such as autonomous vehicles (self-driving cars), defence, image searching, gaming and entertainment. Australia is one of the world’s highest achievers in AI and machine learning for robotic vision.

AI is playing a huge role in discovery science, including by identifying new drugs, finding new candidates for Covid-19 vaccines and predicting protein structures.

In agriculture, AI is being used to increase crop yields by targeting water and nutrient flows according to climatic and topographic factors. It’s even being used to predict crop yields, which takes a lot of the guesswork out of the production process.

AI is also playing a big role in national security, especially in protecting Australia from cyberattacks, which are occurring more frequently. It’s increasingly being used to monitor, interpret and predict the actions of various state and non-state actors that seek to exploit vulnerabilities in friends and enemies alike. AI is a vital element in the arsenal of responses—both defensive and offensive—that Australia has available to respond to changing geopolitical conditions.

Critical sovereign capabilities in cybersecurity, defence, homeland security and responding to ‘truth-disruptions’ to electoral processes and public messaging (for example, the recent bushfires, Covid-19, 5G and so on) are increasingly dependent on AI. There’s a global arms race in the development of capabilities in all those areas, and a difference of 5% in performance can have existential consequences in all cases. While Australia is unlikely to be able to compete effectively in the development of large weapons and machinery for warfare, we can and should develop a security-focused AI sector that’s globally competitive. The resulting capabilities will be essential in asymmetric warfare, whichever role Australia plays.

Many new technologies and capabilities being developed with AI will enhance the welfare of many people, including by augmenting the capabilities of differently abled individuals. For example, AI is driving the human–machine interfaces of new exoskeletons that are allowing people with impaired mobility to walk around. AI has also assisted people with disabilities to live independently. Voice-assisted AI is a major breakthrough, particularly for those who are visually impaired. It helps them communicate with others using smart devices and to describe their surroundings and circumstances.

AI drives down the time taken to perform a task. It enables multi-tasking and eases the workload for existing resources. It also enables the execution of hitherto complex tasks without significant cost outlays. Put together, those two factors have radically driven down the cost of technology, enabling more technology to be available to more people than ever before. Have you used a maps program on your smartphone to voice-navigate your way to your destination along the fastest route? Everyday AI-enabled tech is benefiting people all over the planet. In a sense, AI is a great democratiser.

AI has also enabled more apps to be built to solve more problems for more people in their own communities. It’s empowering more people than ever before.

AIML is involved in many projects researching new ways to develop and use AI. We work with governments, the education sector, private companies and not-for-profits in seeking ways to leverage the many benefits and advantages that AI offers.

We work with the South Australian Government and local councils using AI to investigate and deliver smarter transport networks in our cities. We work with medical providers to deliver better diagnostics, faster decision-making and better targeted drugs. And we help large organisations and bureaucracies find ways to make smarter and faster decisions that help the public with better service delivery and more effective use of our tax dollars.

The profoundly positive impact of AI is to be welcomed. While there are many myths about the risks of AI—and they aren’t to be dismissed—it’s ultimately human decision-making that’s the key to ensuring that AI continues to deliver the many benefits it provides to society.

In summary, Australia is facing a number of challenges in which AI will deliver a number of benefits that ensure our secure, self-reliant future by:

  • protecting security, society and safety
  • creating jobs and prosperity
  • providing better health care and doing so more cost-effectively
  • maintaining our status as a global food exporter in the face of a changing climate, increasing global competition and fractious trading relationships
  • rebuilding Australia as a manufacturing powerhouse.
front cover of the report - Artificial intelligence: Your questions answered.

This article is an extract from Artificial intelligence: your questions answered, a report published in partnership with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI).  

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