Artificial intelligence (AI) is a concept already embedded in our day-to-day lives. Your smart phone? AI. Google’s algorithm? AI. Your email spam filter? AI. When we speak about AI, it’s easy to jump to thoughts of the Terminator movies or i-Robot, but is this really a vision of where technology is heading?

AI is an extremely broad subject, but there are some fundamentals that will become common terms as the AI revolution gathers pace, and they’re relevant to EHS.

3 Categories of AI

There are 3 categories of AI:

  • Artificial Narrow Intelligence (ANI)
  • Artificial General Intelligence (AGI)
  • Artificial Super Intelligence (ASI)

We’ve already achieved ANI – that’s a program that can beat the most intelligent human at one thing, like a chess game or the board game “Go,” as recently was achieved.

What lies ahead is AGI, and it might be approaching us much quicker than we think. AGI is classed as a computer system that is as smart as the human brain across the board. In a first-draft style attempt, Microsoft recently created “Tay,” a tweeting AI chatbot that learns from what the online Twitter community is talking about and responds to messages with logical answers… in theory.

Tay almost immediately had to be taken down in March after it (she?) went rogue and generated sexist, racist remarks for all to see. At this point in AI development, it’s easy to underestimate the progress made to date and the impact of progress we will see even in the next couple of years.

Although practical use of this new technology right now can be a little clunky and gimmicky, we are on an unstoppable path where AI will continue to become ever-more sophisticated and integrated into our lives.

How Quickly Will AI Evolve?

As with any technology – the first phone, first car, first flying contraption – it would be hard for the inventors of such technology to imagine the convergence and development of their inventions (and their impact on society). Crucially, though, is that the speed of progress is getting much, much faster. In effect, technologists now can achieve what would have been 100 years of progress at 20th century development rates in just seven years, and the pace of change is quickening still.

What does this mean? Well for starters, huge amounts of change! Change comparable to the Wright Brothers seeing a jumbo jet thunder past within seven years of their first powered flight at Kitty Hawk. A bit mind blowing? You betcha!

I have mentioned ANI and AGI – clearly as Tay, Siri and Cortana demonstrate, we have lots of progress to make to move from ANI to AGI (Artificial General Intelligence). Long before we see Terminator type T-800’s with EHS scanners and hi-vis jackets roaming about construction sites, we will see a huge transformation for health and safety and health and safety law.

But let’s not get too carried away (at this point) and look at a single application of AI: It’s currently predicted that we will see the first consumer cars capable of fully autonomous driving by 2019. Yes, that’s correct; only three years away.

You may have seen in the news recently that one of Google’s driverless cars (an ANI system) in California was involved in a collision with a passenger bus (see Figure 2). A minor one, and luckily nobody was injured, but this brought to my attention to ways AI – especially in its infant stages – could have a significant impact on health and safety. Or, at least, will soon demand new laws be put in place for regulating how safety incidents involving AI are handled. Combine this with the speed of change and its ability to transform the workplace and we have a continual challenge for EHS and the law to keep up.

The wider impact of AI on the workplace is difficult to imagine. It’s predicted that 30 percent of our jobs will be taken over by AI machines by 2025. This could result in a safer working environment, but there will be other issues we just have not anticipated that will impact the EHS manager, occupational safety and health laws and wider society. Just as Microsoft did not predict that humans would “teach” Tay to tweet racist and sexist comments, you can bet that us humans will create havoc in many cases. It will be a first if such widely deployed technology is not hacked, stolen and generally abused by the unscrupulous.

This article has now probably got you thinking not just from an EHS perspective, but from a life-as-we-know-it perspective. ASI is where the sphere of AI becomes the biggest game changer. ASI is defined as an intellect much smarter than the best human brains in every field, and it would reach levels of intelligence humans cannot even comprehend. Most experts believe we are some way off ASI, but once we reach AGI, ASI very quickly could follow.

If you want to read about how this could even be possible, an article by Tim Urban, "The AI Revolution: The Road to Superintelligence," sums it up.