Human potential, according to a neuroscientist

Silicon Valley neuroscientist Dr Vivienne Ming believes technology must always make us better people

“Artificial intelligence and machine learning will have a profound impact on us as a society, on our economic and human potential,” said Vivienne Ming, of the Faculty of cognitive neuroscience at Singularity University, during her presentation on the future of human potential at the Singularity University South Africa summit in Johannesburg last month. However, she believes that “Technology is merely a tool that doesn’t magically make things better or worse. It’s what we do with it that really matters.”

The neuroscientist believes that, if we don’t change the way we build people, they will be worth vastly less, which will have a profound impact on our society. She said that the most impacted professions will be professional services, such as financial and legal advising, general doctors and physical labour, such as food harvesters. But she allayed the fears of many when she said: “Artificial intelligence is not smart like we’re smart. AIs won’t take jobs, they aren’t that complex yet and don’t have an understanding of the problems. That kind of artificial intelligence hasn’t been invented yet and it’s not coming tomorrow, though it may be possible some day.” However, it can be used to assist humans in doing things that are laborious, time-consuming and sometimes impossible to the human mind.

Artificial intelligence is a kind of super power, according to Ming. It can help find a refugee in a camp anywhere in the world within three minutes by using facial recognition, predict the blood sugar levels of a diabetic patient three hours into the future, and a smart, artificial pancreas with a deep neural network is better than the real thing, at least in the simulation.

Ming gave examples of how a smart phone, by gathering data from around 12 sensor signals passively running in the background, can maintain a continuous emotional state estimation that can predict manic episodes in bipolar patients up to four weeks before they occur. This kind of information can be sent as a warning to a trusted confidant or doctor and can help the patient decrease the stressors in their lives ahead of the episode or signal them when to take a few days of leave from work. “What does it mean when every phone can do the diagnostic work of a specialist?” asked Ming. “It has big implications. People will be alive and productive in society.”

Similarly, in the area of medicine, well-being and productivity, a photograph of the structure of a face can predict hundreds of congenital disorders through face modelling that can, in turn, be treated timeously. “It is a powerful thing to be able to take this data and through the use of machine learning and artificial intelligence save a life,” she said.

In the education sector, artificial intelligence can analyse the artworks and speech patterns of children in order to make predictions about how long they will live, how happy they will be, how far they will pursue their education career and how much of an impact they will have on the world. “Measuring people and treating them as fixed quantities, just by profiling them, doesn’t make the world a better place, but we do need to build artificial intelligence to do exactly that.” While she admits that telling the children’s parents is not recommended, instead projects such as Muse, with which she is involved, can send a daily 20-minute personalised game to parents via SMS to play with their children that are specifically designed to maximise cognitive and socio-emotional development of each profiled child and hence improve their unique life outcomes.

In her article, If kids were bonds, they would be the backbone of the economy, Ming quoted a similar one-hour, weekly meta-learning intervention that was conducted on at-risk toddlers in Kingston, Jamaica, which two decades later saw them earning 25% more than their peers, who had not received such interventions, and improved health, mindset and tenacity.

At Socos Learning, which she co-founded, Ming modelled the hypothetical impact of meta-learning interventions and found that people’s productivity would increase and add an estimated $1.5 trillion to the American economy each year over a 25-year period and add 10% to the GDP overall. “In South Africa, this would increase the local economy by 60%. We merely leave it on the table, because we haven’t tapped into the potential of human capital,” she said.

Ming has also used deep neural networks to passively analyse data by listening to an online discussion forum of university students talking about their course work. Within a week she predicted the grade that each student would get. By week she could single out which students would fail which final exam questions. The potential of artificial intelligence is that it can pre-empt and hence target difficult areas for students, “So you can actually do something about it. Right now you don’t find out that you’ve failed until you take the exam.”

Whereas in the field of employment and recruitment, artificial intelligence can help build models that predict how well potential job candidates would be at fulfilling jobs they have never held based on the individual’s data. They eliminate human bias from the hiring process, such as the prestige of a university or previous employer.

Furthermore, similar models can also quantify human capital by measuring an employee’s lifetime value-add to the company, without directly measuring the employee. While applied neural science can optimise everything about a work team by sending real-time messages to line managers based on performance and employee interaction. “We know that cognitively and creatively diverse teams are optimal for creative problem solving, but they are low on trust and communication, in the short-term they are not very productive. How to get a team that has never met before to be a high performance and optimal proficiency team?” Artificial intelligence is the answer, though Ming prefers to think of it as a form of augmented intelligence.

In closing, she challenged the audience at the Singularity University South Africa summit to ask themselves whether they utilise technology in the best, most productive way possible. “The goal of all of these technologies – through education, health, and restructuring the way we work – should be explicitly about making us better people, that is what augmented intelligence should be because we cannot outsource who we are to a phone, AI or a robot. When you turn technology off, you have to be a better person than you were before you picked it up, otherwise, you are robbing yourself from your own future.” And that’s how artificial intelligence can build better people.

Dr Vivienne Ming was speaking to an audience of policy makers, academics, corporates, entrepreneurs, and investors at the inaugural Singularity University South Africa Summit in collaboration with Standard Bank, global partners Deloitte and strategic partners MTN and SAP. The two-day summit focused on how exponential technologies will transform various sectors and help to #futureproofAfrica.