How real is the danger of artificial intelligence?

By Kenneth W. Dion | 01/18/2016

If technology takes over in health care, is it still health care?

Year after year we see amazing advances in health care with many of them driven by technology. From surgical robots to ingested cameras to cochlear implants to nanites that carry out tasks at cellular levels, technology is invading our bodies. These technologies currently share one common factor—there’s a human in the loop. But for how long?
 
Kenneth W. DionIn an open letter to world leaders and the public, business magnates that include Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors and SpaceX; Warren Buffet, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway; Bill Gates, former CEO of Microsoft; and others, have requested that artificial intelligence (AI) not be used for military purposes. I believe this is a reasonable request.
 
Just imagine—drones equipped with facial recognition capability (now commonplace) that stay aloft and search for targets 24 hours a day with no human involved. The idea of machines usurping man’s authority has been present in my consciousness since I saw the film “Colossus: The Forbin Project” (1970), and the theme has been repeated in novels and more recent films, such as “The Terminator” (1984) and “The Matrix” (1999). The question is not if the theme will continue to be repeated, but rather if fiction will become reality.
 
Science fiction of the past very often becomes the reality of the day. Nearly 50 years after men traveled to the moon, man-made probes are exploring the current state of the universe and orbital telescopes are visualizing its past while, here on earth, physicists are unlocking its foundational elements. The ability of technology to collect and interpret data is quickly outpacing human ability to do the same.
 
So far, man has remained in the loop to make corrections in situations that computers, in our human opinion, are unable to adapt to, but we are slowly giving over control to technologies under the guise that machines are more precise. I wonder how long it will be before Moore’s Law catches up with us and the first lawsuit is filed in response to a plastic-surgery robotic laser gone wild, à la the science-fiction classic “Barbarella” (1968), starring Jane Fonda.
 
Dion brain chip imageBritish scientists recently demonstrated that the brain of one primate is capable of controlling the motor function of another primate when mediated by a computer. Using 36 electrodes, the researchers connected a conscious monkey that had an implanted brain chip to the spinal cord of an unconscious avatar—another monkey—to measure responses to various stimuli. Ninety-eight percent of the time, the master correctly controlled the avatar’s arm. Upon hearing this news, the report continued, “The scientists from Harvard Medical School in the U.S. envisage their findings could go towards creating machinery to help patients.” Machinery to help patients? Sounds like another very slippery slope!

As technology pervades every aspect of our daily lives, personal privacy is disappearing as rapidly as the technology propelling society forward advances. Our ability to map and manipulate the human brain is being refined equally as rapidly. Will we see the day where excess capacity in the human brain is used for secure storage of data because it is the only private place left (Gibson, 1986)?
 
I shudder to think about the brain being manipulated for nefarious reasons. Imagine, implanted “machinery to help patients” being hijacked by a computer virus that can be triggered by something as simple as an image, leaving the source of the virus undetected. The undetectable computer virus part already exists. Assisted by technology and artificial intelligence, it appears we are well on our way to external manipulation of the brain and nervous system.
 
You hold in your hand today a communicator thousands of times more powerful than that used by Captain Kirk in “Star Trek” or the computers that sent man to the moon. If science fiction is as close a predictor of the future as it has been in the past, we as health care professionals and as a society will be facing some very difficult decisions about the boundaries of AI, some of which may already have passed us by.
 
Where do you think the boundaries should be in use of artificial intelligence to explore the human brain? Do you think AI-assisted exploration of the human brain will lead to taking us completely “out of the loop?” 
 
Kenneth W. Dion, PhD, MSN/MBA, RN, founder of Decision Critical, Inc., is treasurer of the board of directors of the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International. He is past president of the board of trustees of the Foundation of the National Student Nurses' Association andpast chair of the board of directors of Sigma Theta Tau International Foundation for Nursing.
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