The pandemic without AI
Realising how Artificial Intelligence saved us during the pandemic.
Prof. Alexiei Dingli
The year of the pandemic was horrible. People lost their lives. Our houses became our prisons, and we had to restrain our social instincts. It was all very surreal, something you only see in Hollywood disaster movies.
However, did you ever stop and wonder how we could survive a pandemic without technology? In particular, Artificial Intelligence (AI)?
Most probably, if we speak about electricity, there is no debate, and we all agree that it is fundamental for our day-to-day life. But AI is a little bit more elusive. Our devices do not specify that an AI lies at the heart of a particular technology, so it is hard for people to recognise it.
A recent survey asked people whether they had ever interacted with an AI. Only 50% of them admitted that they did. What’s interesting is the fact that when they were made aware of some typical AI applications, over 95% indicated that they had used one of these services over the last year.
I’m sure that if I were to ask you the same question, many of you would answer that you don’t use AI. But I can bet that many of you use it daily and you’re heavily dependent on it. Let me give you some examples.
Every day, people look for all sorts of information online. They usually do this through an online search engine. The Google Search engine alone handles around 5.6 billion searches per day. It is the AI that is sifting through billions of pages per second and providing users with a list of possible search results.
Online shopping was the big victor throughout this year. More than 2 billion people bought something online. AI is vital to help us locate the products we want to buy. Not only in the search engine, but many sites like Amazon also recommend additional products.
Different things you might be interested in, suggestions on what other people bought, recommending package deals and so on. It is the AI who processes the billions of online purchases and provides customers with recommendations.
Furthermore, when the buyer proceeds with the checkout, the AI is working in the background, ensuring that the transaction is valid and safe from any fraudulent activity.
The only way in which we can still socialise with each other is through our electronic devices. At the top of the list are social networking sites such as Facebook, Instagram or TikTok.
At the heart of such systems lies an AI, sifting through millions of online posts and selecting the ones which might be interesting. The curation of the social feed is automatic; the AI decides what you should see and what you shouldn’t, thus providing every one of us with a slightly different viewpoint over reality.
Work too shifted from the offices into our homes (where possible). Because of this, productivity tools become extremely important. 60% of workers already have a digital assistant (such as Siri, Cortana, Alexa or Google Home) either on their mobile phone or at home.
Just by talking to them using natural languages (such as English, Italian, etc.), users can; hear an overview of the weather conditions, have their emails read while filtering the spam, schedule an appointment and much more. AI is at the heart of such systems; listening to the user, understanding the instructions, executing them and replying using the same natural language. Of course, there are many other examples.
Just consider writing a document on a word processor such as Microsoft Word or Grammarly. The AI is correcting the text for both grammatical and syntactical mistakes. It is suggesting alternate words, even commenting on your writing style, and it can also translate the text in any language.
Of course, spending time at home means that we also need to do house chores and entertain ourselves. AI too is fundamental in both of these functions. As an example, let’s look at robotic vacuum cleaners which have become quite popular in the past year.
The AI controls the movements of the robot, ensures the cleaning of the entire house, protects the robot from potential dangers (such as falling down the stairs) and redirects it back to its charging bay when the battery is low.
Other devices such as modern air conditioners, ovens, fridges and coffee machines (to name a few) all have some AI to manage their most complex functions. When it comes to entertainment, the most obvious use of AI is in digital games.
A football game like FIFA not only allows you to play against the AI but also assists you in moving your teammates. Practically, all modern games have some sophisticated AI who strives to keep the player engaged.
Other passive forms of entertainment such as streaming services like Netflix or Disney+ use AI to display a selection of movies which the user is most likely to enjoy. Some of these movies (such as Carmen Sandiego or Black Mirror: Bandersnatch) use AI to give viewers the freedom to make limited choices. When watching foreign films, AI is not capable of translating the dialogue but can also display dynamically generated sub-titles.
These examples are just the tip of the iceberg, and there are loads of other applications of AI in our day-to-day life. If I had to ask you whether you had ever interacted with an AI, I’m sure that you would confirm that you use it daily.
So can you imagine yourself going through a pandemic without AI? Probably not! Hence why experts are referring to AI as the new electricity. Because it is pervasive, used everywhere and we barely realise it is changing our lives for the better, until we lose it!
Prof. Alexiei Dingli
Prof Alexiei Dingli is a Professor of AI at the University of Malta. He has been conducting research and working in the field of AI for more than two decades, assisting different companies to implement AI solutions. His work has been rated World Class by international experts and he won several local and international awards (such as those by the European Space Agency, the World Intellectual Property Organization and the United Nations to name a few). He has published several peer-reviewed publications and formed part of the Malta.AI task-force which was set up by the Maltese government, aimed at making Malta one of the top AI countries in the world.