Artificial intelligence doesn’t have to threaten humans; he can also work with us to solve big problems. Do you still feel a little wary of algorithms? We’ve collected a wealth of stories from the past year that demonstrate the many ways this technology can have a positive impact.
Fight against climate change
This year, AI revealed its prowess as a powerful tool to help prevent climate change from causing irreversible damage to the planet, which requires more than one solution. Researchers are using AI to visualize future effects of floods and wildfires, improve climate decision-making, monitor forests, and share data. Other AI-powered climate projects have included building digital twins of the planet to test the impact of different warming mitigation policies and mapping the thinning of sea ice.
Improve access to nutrients and water
Without access to a variety of foods, people around the world risk malnutrition and other health problems. A new model identifies places where populations are more likely to suffer from nutrient deficiencies. Meanwhile, in many US cities, access to clean water is hampered by the presence of toxic lead pipes. A new algorithm helps local governments find and eliminate these underground threats by predicting which homes are most likely to have them.
Detection of lethal weapons
Buried landmines kill thousands of people every year. But researchers are working on a system that uses drone imagery and machine learning to spot unexploded ordnance from a distance so it can be safely disarmed. Of course, drones themselves can also be used for nefarious purposes, but another AI algorithm, this one inspired by the eye of a fly, can detect such threats.
Overtake video gamers
An AI program has defeated human video game champions in the ultra-realistic racing game Gran Turismo. This will help the game’s developers give competitors a worthy in-game automated adversary. And beyond that, self-driving car researchers could use the program’s success to inspire their own work in the real world.
Diagnose life-threatening health issues
This year, researchers completed a massive field test of an AI program to detect sepsis, a leading cause of death in hospitals. The results suggest the program reduced health complications and deaths from sepsis while gaining positive feedback from healthcare professionals who used it. And human diseases aren’t the only ones that AI can combat – another algorithm has been used to diagnose bacterial infection of olive trees.
Cracking the protein code
Every function in the human body relies on proteins, which consist of long chains of amino acids folded into complex structures that do the work encoded by our genes. But predicting what shape that chain will take is tricky and can take years to figure out, if you’re a human. Last summer, Google’s DeepMind company announced that its AI program AlphaFold had predicted the molecular structures of nearly every known protein. That’s about 200 million estimated forms of protein. This massive achievement solves one of the thorniest problems in biology and earned the creators of the AI a breakthrough prize of $3 million.
Wine and beer review
Want to have a preview of the experience of sipping a dry white wine or a fruity sour beer? A language-generating AI can help you decide what to drink by combining existing reviews into condensed, summarized descriptions. And its creators say the program could be expanded to distill reviews for many other products.
Predict viruses with pandemic potential
As cold weather sets in, COVID cases are on the rise again. To understand what the disease-causing coronavirus will do next, researchers are using an AI tool to analyze viral mutations, predicting when a new variant such as Omicron will emerge and become dominant. Such forecasting tools can do more than help manage the current pandemic. Other algorithms are programmed to examine viruses that are currently spreading in the animal kingdom to identify those that could jump to humans, potentially helping researchers avoid the next pandemic.
Fight the development of illegal drugs
New designer drugs can produce similar effects to known recreational drugs, but they have small molecular differences. Because designer versions are chemically distinct from the original drugs, they can circumvent some of the government regulations on these substances. They can also have unexpected debilitating health effects. So many molecules have intoxicating potential that banning these substances has forced regulators to play a mole game, but now AI has stepped in. The researchers used an algorithm to produce a database of molecules that could be developed as potential designer drugs. This could allow governments to preemptively ban these hazardous substances.
We tend to think of technology and nature as conflicting forces. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Artificial intelligence algorithms can analyze data from ecosystems at risk to measure the biodiversity of that environment and to support conservation projects led by indigenous groups. Another AI-powered technology, facial recognition, helps researchers monitor mountain lions without disrupting their solitary routines.
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