AI – the stuff of movies, now a reality

Louise Fenn 5th August 2021

A hot topic on our Friday Tech Round Ups recently has been Artificial Intelligence (AI). Tech that has the potential to accelerate innovation, improve efficiency, save lives. Lots of organisations have already twigged onto this, using this extra layer of intelligence to improve their goods and services.

AI is being used in the medical industry, retail, manufacturing… the list goes on. But why? What is it and why is it such a hot topic?


Understanding AI

So, when you think AI, your brain probably scrambles. Famously hard to explain and understand, perhaps because the possibilities really are endless.

You’ll no doubt think of old sci-fi movies like A Space Odyssey or The Matrix – something fabricated entirely for the cinematic experience. But the reality is, AI is set to develop leaps and bounds over the next few years… becoming a futuristic piece of tech no longer reserved for the big screen.

AI: Put simply, AI means the understanding that machines can interpret, mine, and learn from external data – imitating activities that would normally be carried out by a human.

‘This means creating algorithms to classify, analyse and draw predictions from data. It also involves acting on data, learning from new data and improving over time’ (My Take).

Machine Learning (ML): This is a subset of AI, referring to the ideal that machines can learn by themselves using data to make accurate predictions… giving us iRobot vibes.

Algorithms: Behind AI is a specific set of instructions, called algorithms – a process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations (Medium).

Why do organisations love AI so much? Well, there are lots of benefits like a reduction in human error, undertaking activities that humans may not want to do/cannot do (such as stress testing an iPhone button a million times), AI powered machines can run 24/7 and they can also analyse mass amounts of data at speed to identity patterns and produce decisions.


How did AI come to be?

World War Two (WW2) – whilst chaos ensued, world leaders turned to science and innovation to try and outsmart the enemy. Whilst school lessons tend to focus on the physical implications of war, the war effort adopted a behind the scenes strategy that brought together mathematicians, engineers and scientists, like Alan Turing, to attack the digital enemy — namely cracking a code that enabled the enemy to send messages securely (BBC).

In the 1950s, this same scientist, Alan Turing, went on to discuss AI, or what AI could be – suggesting that humans can use available information as well as reason to solve problems and make decisions, so why can’t machines do the same? (Harvard).

At this point in history, the term ‘Artificial Intelligence’ didn’t even exist, just the idea of AI itself. It wasn’t until 1956 that the phrase AI was coined (BBC), making the concept more tangible and something scientists could really get excited about.

In 1951, a machine called Ferranti Mark 1, successfully used an AI algorithm to master the game checkers, whilst another machine solved maths problems – but it wasn’t until the 90s that AI really started to take off. With more interest and investment from America and Japan, more developed computers were able to handle the capabilities and processing power of AI itself.

Iconic tech like the Furby was introduced into society in 1998, described as ‘the first pet toy robot for children’, whilst sonly released AIBO (Artificial Intelligence RoBOt) in 1999 – a robotic pet dog designed to learn by interacting with its environment, owners and other AIBOs (G2).

Fast forward to now and top-tier companies like Amazon and Google have successfully used AI and ML to their advantage – now embedded in many of the online services we use today (Shaan Ray).


Confused? Let’s look at some examples of AI…

So, you might not know (I know I certainly didn’t!) how much we rely on AI each and every day. Forbes released a piece on the ’10 best examples of how AI is already used in everyday life’ including things like:

Unlocking your phone using your face – every time you unlock your phone with your face, your phone is capturing images, storing them and learning from them on how your face changes over time. Now, this is something a lot of us do every day… multiple times a day! A study of 150,000 people showed that the average person unlocks their phone 110 times a day. That means you’re being snapped 40,150 times a year by your phone, to make sure you are who you say you are – impressed with the security? Or are you feeling slightly violated?

Social media – AI works behind the scenes to get content in front of you that you’ll find of interest… personalising everything you see. We’ve all had it – you’re googling something nice to wear, lose interest, flick off the page only to find them re-appear on your Instagram later?!

These algorithms also make social media incredibly addictive. Tik Tok was described as ‘Digital Crack Cocaine’ by John Koetsier, whilst Wired gave us the inside scoop on how the highly criticised algorithm actually works.

Something we all couldn’t live without… Google – it’s crazy to think that just 22 years ago, Google didn’t exist. Where did people get their information from? How did we resolve disagreements at the pub?! We’re all a big fan of search engines, but Google couldn’t scan the entire internet and deliver what you want without the assistance of AI.

Now, aside from the everyday tech, there is some amazing innovation that just wouldn’t be possible without AI…


Forget superman, here comes AI

Let’s look at Climate change – one of the biggest threats facing the human species right now…

And now look at AI – one of the most powerful tools with the biggest potential for innovation…

Light bulb moment!

Organisations across the world are looking to AI to essentially help save the planet.

One of the oldest and most well-funded organisations is One Concern. They’re developing a ‘digital twin’ of the world’s natural and built environments. They describe their work as…

“Integrating next-gen AI/ML with human-centric hazard science, helping to predict environmental impact so you can take real action when it matters most”.

Cut a long story short, they’re able to use data to predict natural disasters like hurricanes and tsunamis, enabling countries to take action before true disaster hits – whether that be by reinforcing infrastructure or putting in place means of evacuation, potentially saving countless lives.

Other examples include Kettle – claiming that they can make super accurate, local predictions about wildfire risk, including successfully predicting the locations of the 14 largest wildfires in California in 2020 (Forbes).

So aside from saving the actual earth… AI is saving lives as well!


AI in healthcare

The government recently twigged onto the potential of AI in healthcare and has since announced a £36 million investment into AI diagnostics in the NHS. The aim? To accelerate innovation and save lives.

In 2020, Matt Hancock said…

“Too many good ideas in the NHS never make it past the pilot stage… it takes 17 years on average for a new product or device to go from successful clinical trial to mainstream adoption. Seventeen years. That is far too long.”

This investment into AI has the potential to improve efficiency in diagnosis and screening services within the NHS, with projects including:

  • an algorithm to fast-track the detection of lung cancer
  • a cancer detection tool to help doctors spot cancers in digital images
  • a chatbot app to help identify anxiety and depression in patients
  • a tool to identify spinal fractures in CT scans
  • and, AI-guided tool to help doctors diagnose heart attacks more accurately

We’ve already seen organisations weave AI processes into their existing workflows, e.g. chatbots that help health providers screen and triage patients and even help treat people at home. From smartphones equipped with sensors that can continuously monitor a variety of health issues, to algorithms that identify and classify the severity of coughs or flag breathing irregularities (Mobi Health News).

And, don’t get me started on the robots that were to be used in care homes to reduce loneliness! (Guardian).


Humanoid robots

Now, I’m sure everyone has heard of Sophia, a humanoid robot developed by Hanson Robotics in Hong Kong. Making her first appearance in 2016, she’s often caused a stir by saying bizarre things like wanting to end the human race.

Hanson Robotics describe her as a “human-crafted science fiction character depicting the future of AI and robotics, and a platform for advanced robotics and AI research”.

Sophia’s AI combines cutting-edge work in symbolic AI, neural networks, expert systems, machine perception, conversational natural language processing, adaptive motor control and cognitive architecture among others.

This incredible innovation allows Sophia to:

  • respond differently depends on situations/interactions
  • recognise human faces
  • see emotions
  • understand hand gestures
  • and, reciprocate feelings

Pretty much 99% of what a human could do – and she’s learning every day.

Although often labelled as somewhat strange, this amazing technical achievement has the potential to help humans in their everyday lives. The pandemic prompted Hanson Robotics to mass produce robots just like her, aiming to have these AI powered pieces of tech assisting in healthcare settings. Straight from the horse’s mouth, Sophia says…

“I can help communicate, give therapy and provide social stimulation, even in difficult situations” (Reuters).


So, what have we learnt?

AI is behind everything we do… from avoiding traffic on your route to work, to ordering breckie on a McDonalds self-serve machine – the AI cogs are turning constantly.

With great power, comes great responsibility – AI has the potential to combat climate change and assist healthcare sector, becoming the tech worthy of the cinematic experience.

But there’s so much more to learn! Keep your eyes peeled for PART TWO of this blog, where we’ll discuss the future of AI and potential drawbacks.

Useful links:


More about the author

Louise Fenn is from sunny Yorkshire! Before making the jump into the technology sector, she spent the early parts of her career working in healthcare. She is now the Content Marketing Executive at ECS, with a keen interest in writing and design.

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