news·8 min read

How AI is Changing the World

Aug 5, 2019

From “Westworld” to driverless cars to cashierless stores, AI is popping up everywhere. Here’s everything you need to know about how it works and how it could transform society.


The Story

AI is the future. Just ask Common.

The Background

AI or artificial intelligence refers to machines that can carry out human-like tasks, making intelligent decisions that typically only a real live person could make. The concept went mainstream in the 1950s, when Benedict Cumberbatch, er we mean Alan Turing came up with a test that he called the Imitation Game (later known as the Turing Test) – a test to determine at what point a computer can ‘think.’ 

Loved that movie.

It was a good one. Here’s your reminder that it was based on real life. In the mid ‘50s, a bunch of science-y types got together at a Dartmouth conference and the term “artificial intelligence” was born. Shoutout to John McCarthy, the Dartmouth mathematics professor who’s credited with officially coining AI and was one of the founding fathers of AI research.

But how does it work?

Thanks to major improvements over the decades in processing speeds and data storage, AI has gotten much more sophisticated. It essentially involves processing a ton of data – everything from photos to medical records – very quickly in order to make decisions. See: that time in 1997 when a computer beat a world chess champion at his own game.

Praise be.

Indeed. It was the first time people got a glimpse at a future when computers might become just as, if not smarter, than humans. To be clear, we aren’t there yet. 

So where are we then?

Well, we’ve come a long way since 1997. The computer that won that chess game was able to explore up to 200 million possible chess positions per second. In other words, it was trained to react to the other player’s moves, but not to learn from previous games in order to become a better chess player. Now, the branch of AI that gets people really jazzed is machine learning, when systems get smarter over time. More sophisticated algorithms and increasing access to data in a digital world are making AI better at analyzing info and predicting outcomes. This is what powers everything from self-driving cars to your personalized Netflix recommendations.

The Big issue

AI can be used for good – to solve complex problems and make life more efficient. But it can also come with some major downsides. 

Here are some of the pros:

  • Health care: AI’s bread and butter is processing data. And patient health records contain a lot of data. Problem, meet solution. Research has shown that AI could be used to accurately diagnose patients with Alzheimer’s, a disease that’s difficult for doctors to catch early on. It can help detect deadly illnesses like sepsis in hospital patients. Google even reportedly developed an algorithm that can predict everything from how long a patient will stay in a hospital to their chances of death while they’re there.

  • Efficiency: AI can automate low-level, repetitive tasks (think: customer service). And since AI doesn’t need sleep or your 2pm walk to get coffee, it can function like the Energizer Bunny. Some research shows that long-term, AI could increase productivity and give the economy a major boost. 

  • Addressing complex tasks: AI could help address challenges related to areas like climate change and space exploration. Some examples: using AI to predict extreme weather, adding smart tech to buildings to reduce energy use, deploying AI robots to the International Space Station to help astronauts more efficiently carry out experiments.

Anndddd the cons:

  • Disinformation. As AI becomes better at copying humans, it can be used to spread disinformation online. See: deepfakes – when AI is used to create fake photos or videos of people that appear very real, making it seem like they did or said something that never happened. Skimm Notes tells you everything you need to know about how this works, and the threat it could pose to political stability, the business world, and democracies.

  • Job losses. Automation is expected to replace tens of millions of jobs in the future. There are concerns about what this means for the workforce. It could mean retraining millions of workers. But some warn that it’ll ultimately increase inequality as people become unemployable and lose the opportunity for upward mobility, and wealth becomes more concentrated.

  • Privacy concerns. The amount of data out there on the interwebs and the increasing ability of AI to use that data is furrowing many a brow. Some governments have taken steps to give consumers more control over their data. But regulating AI is new territory, and there are a lot of opinions about how to do it. 

So...where do things net out?

Depends who you ask. We’ll get into the debate surrounding AI in a sec. Many AI researchers and scientists point out that we’ve only tapped into the tip of the AI iceberg. This field is uncharted territory, with the potential to be extremely powerful in the future. The ultimate AI quest is for artificial general intelligence (AGI) – the ability of a machine to perform any task that a human can...maybe even better than humans. That’s versus where we are now, which is considered “narrow” AI – systems that can only tackle very specific tasks. Researchers say AGI is a ways off. As in decades, at a minimum. But everything AI could accomplish is a big reason why the field raises a lot of ethical questions. Speaking of...

The Debate

There’s a lot of controversy surrounding AI, mostly related to ethics – concerns about data privacy, concerns about bias in machine decision making, concerns that automating jobs will lead to a rise in inequality.

Some, for example, say we need to pre-emptively ban autonomous weapons in order to avoid complicated issues like who’s held accountable for deaths. Others say autonomous weapons tech can be more accurate, efficient, and ultimately save lives.

This is just one example. But generally, the argument comes down to whether, and how, AI should be regulated. Some say we need international standards – principles like “AI must not increase any bias that already exists in our systems.”

Others say that the view that robots will take over the world is alarmist. That still, AI should be regulated. But that those regulations should be specific to existing tech, instead of trying to rein in tech that doesn’t exist yet.

The Impact

AI is transforming society. From tech like Siri and Alexa to automated grocery checkout. And its potential is both massive (see: driverless cars) and unknown – leading many to only guess at what’s to come. There’s the impact to jobs and productivity, which some say could free humans up to spend their time in more meaningful ways. There’s the potential of AI to literally save lives and improve quality of life.

I’m sensing a ‘but’ coming.

But…there are concerns about how advances in AI will affect humans. Both practical: Will the job disruption lead to extreme economic disparity and even populist uprisings? And more existential: If robots can do everything, will humans lose purpose in their lives? Then there are the geopolitical implications – everything from the spread of false information to autonomous weapons could shift global power dynamics, impacting security and politics.


AI is often referred to as a genie let out of its bottle. There’s no getting it back in at this point. The challenge now is leveraging its power while mitigating the risks of something with the potential to define the future of humanity.

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