Brave new world? Academia’s crucial role in the advance of artificial intelligence

The rise of artificial intelligence “will be either the best, or the worst thing, ever to happen to humanity.” This stark summary was delivered by Professor Stephen Hawking at the 2016 opening of the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence, in Cambridge.

Artificial intelligence (AI), or the development of systems or machines which simulate human intelligence, is fast changing the landscape. Its ability to process vast amounts of data and create sophisticated algorithms is already powering anything from spam filters to credit decisions.

The benefits look set to be transformational. The sheer scale of AI’s problem-solving powers is accelerating the possibility of world-changing breakthroughs. If targeted at delivering progress against the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, for example, artificial intelligence may herald unprecedented improvements for the future of humanity. A means to mitigate climate change or cure cancer may be hiding in the multitude of existing research ­papers – and intelligent systems that can mine huge datasets and make unanticipated connections might just identify it.

Howerver, as Hawking warned, artificial intelligence also brings with it the possibility of perilous risk. This ranges from the impact of mass automation on jobs to the consequences of creating machines with untold power but no empathy.

Universities and research institutes have long been at the forefront of the development of artificial intelligence. In 2009, Aberystwyth University successfully designed a robotic system that carried out the full cycle of a scientific experiment: formulating a hypothesis, designing and running experiments, and carrying out analysis and follow-up experiments with almost no human intervention.

Interest and investment in the field is enormous. The Chinese government is just one of several international governments currently providing significant financial incentives to boost collaboration between universities and industry on research and innovation in artificial intelligence. Chinese technology companies are investing in professorial chairs and academic training programmes, and providing scholarships for Chinese students to study AI in top overseas universities.

The scale and speed of development is bringing sweeping change to the academic world itself. These far-reaching advances will affect many areas, including:

  • Research: Artificial intelligence allows for the analysis of extremely large datasets and is revolutionising research. Tools like Semantic Scholar give researchers anywhere in the world open and free access to more than 40 million papers using AI-powered suggested search terms.
  • Funding: Work is underway to automate the extraction of funding information relating to research. This will give grant-making bodies the ability to quickly, accurately and comprehensively track the output of work they’ve funded and will reduce the reporting burden on researchers.
  • Teaching: Artificial intelligence is helping educators to tailor teaching to individual learning styles and needs. Students will have greater freedom to learn wherever, whenever and through whatever platform they prefer. Their learning experience is set to include increasingly rich resources and engaging, participatory activities. Educators will also be able to target their time more strategically as students turn to virtual assistants and chatbots for answers to commonly asked questions.
  • Academic publishing: At a time when so many articles are being published worldwide each year, AI allows effective widescale checking so publishers can identify misuse of statistics, fraudulent data, flawed reporting or plagiarism. Its benefits in this area are manifold and include: the detection of data that has been modified to manipulate an outcome, the identification of new peer reviewers from online sources, the automating of systematic literature reviews and the registering and recording of intellectual property rights from scholarly research.
  • Administration: Robust automation made possible by artificial intelligence will transform tasks such as exam-invigilating, applicant selection and the monitoring of performance against research or diversity goals.

While these benefits will enhance the quality and scope of output across academic disciplines, the revolution does not come without serious disruption.

Within the study of artificial intelligence itself, Maja Pantic, Professor of Affective and Behavioural Computing at Imperial College, London, highlights the risk of a ‘missing generation’ as significant numbers move from academia to the private sector, with a consequent impact on research and teaching provision for future generations:

 “A lot of people believe this is a phase that will pass. To me, that’s like being the ostrich that puts its head in the sand. In the end society will suffer. The majority of top people who leave academia move to Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple. The real problem is these people are not dispersed through society. The intellect and expertise is concentrated in a small number of companies.”

Beyond that, advances in AI stand to profoundly change academic institutions, innovation, science and society itself. As Hawking mooted, it may irrevocably alter humanity’s place in the world. There has never been a more crucial need for proactive, considered and courageous leadership from the academic world.

This is in part already happening through the establishment of bodies such as the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence, whose stated aim is to ‘bring together the best of human intelligence so that we can make the most of machine intelligence’ and the University of Cambridge’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, an interdisciplinary research centre working on collaborative strategies to reduce risk to humanity.

In addition to technology, universities and research institutions are leaders in fields such as philosophy, psychology, public policy, governance, law and ethics, all of which have much to contribute to the shaping of AI and its potential impact. It is surely more important than ever that academic experts across the board collaborate in thinking through how humans can live and work – and ultimately thrive – alongside artificial intelligence.

Further reading:

Preparing for the future: artificial intelligence and us

Artificial intelligence will transform universities. Here’s how

Is Artificial Intelligence Good or Bad for Academic Research?

5 reasons to pay attention to machine learning

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Jo Mitchell is an experienced writer and editor. After studying Modern Languages at the University of Oxford she worked in fundraising at Oxfam GB and Viva, where she specialised in writing communications for major donors. She now provides freelance editing and copywriting services at Nightingale Ink in the firm belief that sometimes words can sing.

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