Artificial intelligence is all around us. Perhaps you even found this podcast thanks to Spotify or Apple podcasts’ AI recommending it to you! But for some people, AI is a worrying threat and potential danger. Is AI actually bad for society? Let’s talk about it on today’s episode of Thinking in English!

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Vocabulary List

Algorithm (n) – a set of mathematical instructions and rules that helps computers to find the answer to problems and do calculations

Music apps use algorithms to predict the probability that fans of one band will like another similar band

To mimic (v) – to copy the way in which a particular person usually speaks and moves

The parrot was mimicking its owner

To encounter (v) – to experience something, especially something unpleasant

When did you first encounter these difficulties

Respondent (n) – a person who answers a request for information

In a recent newspaper poll, a majority of respondents were against government’s decision

To coin (v) – to invent a new word or expression, or to use one in a particular way for the first time

Allen Ginsberg coined the term “flower power”

Reigning (adj) – being the most recent winner of a competition

She’s the reigning champion at Wimbledon

Impairment (n) – deterioration or damage in a body part or organ

Visual impairments can now be treated with laser surgery

Diagnosis (n) – a judgement about what a particular illness or problem is, made after examining it

The doctor’s diagnosis came as a shock

Salient (adj) – the salient facts about something or qualities of something are the most important things about them 

She started her report by summarizing the most salient points

Artificial intelligence is everywhere in our modern societies. The algorithms that promote Instagram pages, Youtube videos, and probably even the Thinking in English podcast. Home assistants like Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri which can respond to millions of different questions. The self-driving features of modern cars, especially those found within Teslas. And within the scientific, technology, and computing industries, Artificial Intelligence is used constantly to develop new products and find new solutions to existing problems. 

According to IBM, Artificial Intelligence, or AI for short, is the use of “computers and machines to mimic the problem-solving and decision-making capabilities of the human mind.” In other words, using computers to copy the way we think and work. AI software is constantly learning how to perform better, just as a human does when encountered with a new situation. Do you have a Netflix subscription, or maybe a YouTube account? Think about how they recommend or suggest things for you to watch. At first, when you just sign up, they will suggest a variety of popular things. Then, after seeing the kinds of shows or videos you prefer to watch, the AI will begin to learn what you like and suggest more shows similar to that. For humans, this is natural and easy. But for machines, it is a complicated process. 

The type of AI used in those situations is often described as “narrow” or “weak.” This is because the AI is limited in what it can do. It can only work within the rules and guidelines set out by the human inventors and scientists who control and maintain it. For example, Netflix’s AI only recommends shows that you can find on Netflix. It doesn’t tell you to head over to Amazon Prime, Hulu, or Disney+. While this “weak” AI can, in some ways, ‘think’ for itself, it cannot innovate or come up with its own ideas. This is what is described as “general” or “strong” AI – an Artificial Intelligence that once created will be able to act beyond the original inventor’s intentions and make its own decisions. Such an AI, however, does not come without worries.

Although ideas about machines being able to think like humans have existed for centuries, modern AI probably began with the Turing test. Alan Turing, the famous British scientist who invented one of the first ever computers to break German codes during World War 2, created a test to work out if a computer is capable of “thinking.” The test, now known as the Turing Test, involved a person asking two respondents questions (one respondent being a machine and the other a person) and trying to determine which respondent was human. If the question asker couldn’t successfully work out which was human more than 50 % of the time, then the machine was said to be able to “think.” Although this test has been criticised since, it still marks an important point of when humans began to think about AI. 

The term Artificial Intelligence was coined by John McCarthy in 1956, who is known as the “Father of Artificial Intelligence.” In the 1950s and 60s, a number of key inventions and developments occurred in the field. As technology and computers became cheaper in the 1960s and 70s, governments and organisations began to fund AI projects. Famously, in 1997 Gary Kasparov, the reigning world chess champion, was defeated by the Deep Blue AI computer program. This was seen as a huge step for AI – and such programs are now able to win in even more complicated games such as go

As I mentioned at the beginning of the podcast, AI is everywhere in our modern society. And as we move into the future, it is likely to grow, develop, and spread even more. But is AI actually good for society? At the extreme level, some well respected individuals such as the late scientist Stephen Hawking and Tesla and SpaceX entrepreneur Elon Musk have expressed concern that AI could lead to the end of humanity. On the less extreme side, many people are worried about the effects of letting machines control aspects of our lives and make decisions for us. 

So, for the rest of this episode I’m going to present a few different arguments from both sides of the debate, “Is AI good for society?”. I want you to listen to what I say, and then decide for yourself whether you think AI is beneficial or detrimental. I want you to Think in English. This is exactly the kind of thing you will need to do if you take an English proficiency exam like TOEFL or IELTS, and it is also good practice! I’ve recorded many episodes in a similar style, including episodes on the death penalty, bringing back extinct animals, and whether video games are bad for children  … . Check them out if you’re interested!

Let’s start with some pro-AI arguments! First, some people argue that artificial intelligence can improve workplace safety. By using AI to take over dangerous roles from human workers, companies can improve safety and reduce the risks faced. For example, using drones to inspect rooftops, railway tracks, or highways can reduce the possibility of accidents in such places. As AI is able to learn and improve quickly, it can be used in a variety of safety situations. It can be used to remove human error from safety inspections, and improve employee training. 

Second, another pro- AI argument is that AI can offer better accessibility for people with disabilities. Household and practical devices like Amazon’s Alexa, Google home and Apple’s Siri, which run off AI, allow people to perform tasks like making phone calls, scheduling appointments, and even playing music just by using their voice: an excellent resource for people with physical or visual impairments. AI software can transcribe conversations or subtitle videos automatically. My phone, a Google pixel, can subtitle live phone calls! There are AI projects informing wheelchair users of restaurants that are accessible. Smartwatches and wearable technology use AI to learn about how our bodies usually act, and report when something abnormal or strange occurs. 

Furthermore, AI could potentially make everyday life more comfortable, convenient and enjoyable, improving our health quality and standard of living. Think about it! AI maps help find the fastest routes even when there are accidents. My parents now turn on the TV in the morning by asking Alexa. I don’t need to spend hours scrolling through Netflix as it already knows the genres I like to watch. And think about what could happen in the future! Our refrigerators could tell us when we are running low on eggs or the milk has gone bad. AI could be used in medicine to get quicker diagnosis. It could be used in customer service to get quicker answers to questions or complaints! 

On the other hand, there are also many concerns about AI. For instance, some argue that Artificial intelligence poses dangerous privacy risks. Facial recognition technology can be used to watch innocent people secretly and without their knowledge. Facebook even recently discontinued it’s facial recognition programme, citing privacy concerns. Smart doorbell companies, which record footage of the front of your house, are increasingly partnering with police agencies around the world. There are cases of AI software from Amazon and supermarkets, which track changes in shopping behaviour, predicting people’s pregnancy or medical troubles before those people know themselves. And AI technology can be used by criminals to commit fraud and other crimes. 

Moreover, it has been suggested that AI may repeat and exacerbate racism. Facial recognition has been found in repeated studies to be racially biased – it is very good at identifying white people, and not very good at identifying people of colour. In fact, Amazon’s Rekognition AI program once incorrectly matched 28 politicians from the US Congress with wanted criminals. AI has been used in government systems for housing and welfare, which are known to discriminate against ethnic minorities. In China, AI software has been used to track and control Uyghur minorities from the Xinjiang province. And AI software used by online stores like Amazon and eBay to check listed products often misses racist products, while those used by social media companies to censor language often misses racist language.

Finally, it has been argued that AI could harm the living standards for millions by causing mass unemployment as robots replace people. This is a particularly salient issue at the moment. Robots and AI hardware is getting cheaper, can potentially do the role of employees, and doesn’t require food, breaks, and sleep like regular employees. In the future, perhaps everything that can be automated will be automated. Automated checkouts at supermarkets. Automated taxis, buses, and trains. Automated security. Automated factory production. The jobs lost from this user if AI could potentially lead to mass unemployment, larger income inequality, and consequently social problems. 

Final thought

On today’s episode of thinking in English, I have discussed the role of AI in our modern society. After briefly explaining and defining artificial intelligence, I tried to outline two sides of a debate over whether AI is good for society. On the one hand, AI can improve workplace safety, improve accessibility for the disabled, and lead to more convenient lives. On the other hand, AI comes with privacy concerns, links to racism, and may push people out of jobs. 

So, what do you think? Is AI good for society? What industries or applications would you like to see use AI? Which industries do you want AI to stay away from? How do you use AI in your daily life?

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

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