I have been reading and reporting about the benefits of artificial intelligence or AI for so long now that I actually started believing it was the greatest thing since sliced bread. But that has all changed now.
As I sit at home in isolation, with only the internet and TV to keep me occupied, I’m wondering why AI failed to see the coronavirus pandemic coming and, worse still, why it hasn’t been able to predict its spread, growth, death tolls or anything.
I wonder if anybody has come up with an AI algorithm that will calculate how long companies can survive in business with no revenue coming in, how long governments can keep forking out cash for people to buy food and how long before we see people without start going for people with?
Did AI predict that fear and desperation brought about by a virus would cause people to hoard vast amounts of toilet paper, canned tuna and baked beans and for others to line up for hours outside gun shops in the US preparing for the revolution and anarchy they feel is coming. Maybe we don’t need AI to foresee any of that because it’s happening so fast we can see it unfurling on our TV sets and smartphones, live.
Back in 2017 we were enlightened by the news that Google searches could be a game changer for monitoring illnesses around the world. Reports at the time said that new research indicated online searches can indeed help health officials track diseases and that a team from Harvard University had accurately – and quickly – tracked dengue fever in underdeveloped countries by using a mathematical model that combines Google searches and clinical government data. Presumably, some sort of big data processing or AI was used to glean these remarkable results.
Another article at the time went to on to proclaim that social media had also been used to monitor and forecast illnesses like the flu. For example, a team from Northeastern University was able to predict flu outbreaks six weeks early using tweets. Really?
Excuse me for sounding like a sceptic but I had the feeling that all that data that was being used to analyse my online behaviour and bombard me with useless products and services would also be able to tell me if I was likely to catch COVID-19 or be run over by a bus. No, don’t laugh, I’m being serious here. If the data out there can be manipulated so well to build a total profile of my habits, likes, dislikes, movements, friends, business colleagues online viewing, streaming habits, etc. etc. then why can’t it tell me, and millions of others, when we are likely to fall ill and what we need to do personally, beforehand, to prevent it.
I’m sure senior public servants and maybe even some politicians are wondering how the whole world could have been blindsided by a new virus when we have had similar ones in the recent past. Surely the data from outbreaks like SARs and Ebola, even the common annual flu, could have been overlaid with current data on people movements, travel, health issues, etc to create an reasonably accurate picture of what was going to happen and provide an international perspective for national plans to be put in place.
Instead, what we have, is a dog’s breakfast of different tactics and approaches by states and countries that either think they know better or are just stumbling in the dark hoping for the best. If there was ever a time for lawmakers to pull into line the likes of social media, online providers and search engine giants to provide their data, tools and AI for a united effort to save the world, this is it. Oh wait, it may have just happened in the UK. Better late than never, unless you or somebody you love has suffered from COVID-19 already.
Don’t be surprised if we never return to the world as we knew it six months ago because I sincerely doubt that anyone, with all the technology, data and AI in the world, has even tried to work it out. I have to agree with Alex Leslie’s assessment back in 2017 that artificial intelligence is still more artificial than intelligent. And I, for one, will find it very difficult to believe claims that AI will make the world, or my own life, any better in the future.