On course for a sustainable future with artificial intelligence

Many people view artificial intelligence as something unknown, intangible or even unsettling, although hardly any area of life is exempt today. We spoke to Dalith Steiger, a leading expert in AI, about the latest developments in the field and how this technology will change mobility and other aspects of life.

As the computer scientist John McCarthy posited in 1956, “every aspect … of intelligence can in principle be so precisely described that a machine can be made to simulate it”.

Indeed, only 30 years after this fundamental principle of artificial intelligence (AI) was formulated, the first chess computers shocked the world. Today, another 30 years later, we tell our car where to go, dictate pages of correspondence to a word processing program and complain to a computer-generated hotline assistant.

These systems translate human speech into binary code and, if desired, back again –into any language. This allows the Bulgarian taxi driver to understand where the German tourist in the backseat would like to go. 

Such tremendous computing power is contained within a handy smartphone that can also capture high definition photos, stream movies and shows from vast libraries, and enable instantaneous international video conferencing. Today, nearly every other person on the planet has access to the mostly free services of this “mobile intelligence”.

Leading influencer Dalith Steiger: “Artificial intelligence will change every area of our lives.”
Leading influencer Dalith Steiger: “Artificial intelligence will change every area of our lives.”
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During a train journey along Lake Zurich, we talked to Dalith Steiger, co-founder of the award-winning organization SwissCognitive –The Global AI Hub. Steiger is one of the world’s leading influencers in the area of AI and was recently named a Top 100 Digital Shaper by Bilanz magazine.

SwissCognitive has more than 400,000 followers on social media, where it posts updates on the latest developments in AI. As an expert in the field, Steiger is convinced AI will change almost every aspect of our lives. Since the conversation took place on a train, the topic of mobility soon came up.

Steiger: “The world grows more complex every day. Tremendous strain is being put on infrastructure, tech is engaged in a constant race with itself, climate change is forcing us to rethink our ways and many societal norms are changing. These factors demand and facilitate new solutions to practices that for centuries were ‘just the way we do things’. The way we approach mobility, for instance, will change dramatically. Change will soon be the constant among topics such as electromobility, the sharing economy, traffic density and smart cities.”

Experts agree that in the long term the gradual introduction of AI is the only way to ensure the widespread breakthrough of pioneering options such as electromobility. AI allows communication between mobile and fixed elements in the value-added chain, a critical component in making these processes truly practical. When a motorist drains the battery in their electric car after 400 km, they don’t want to wait two hours for a charging station to become available – they want to dock immediately at a station that has anticipated their arrival. ABB charging stations, which are managed and maintained on a remote network, collect the necessary data. In the near future, AI solutions could make this network more robust to meet wider demand.

Steiger: “Change will soon be the constant in mobility.”
Steiger: “Change will soon be the constant in mobility.”
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What else is AI changing in mobility? Will we soon be driving remote-controlled, autonomous vehicles? That’s doubtful, says Steiger: “People like to think in extremes, and many are already imagining an age without drivers. At SwissCognitive, we believe that priority will be given to environmental work and managing freeway capacity. It makes more economic and ecological sense to increase use on some sections of the highway than to spend lots of money on expanding them. Preferably, this would be accomplished by gradually introducing semi-autonomous trucks or even passenger vehicles. These projects are not intended to force out drivers; instead, the goal is to increase infrastructural capacity.This approach could also be applied to rail and air travel.”

Although semi-autonomous cars, buses and trucks could be on the road in the foreseeable future, there is a lot human drivers can do that these vehicles cannot: they cannot care for, maintain or repair themselves – a flat tire will literally throw them off course.

The entire process – from design to manufacture to distribution – will present challenges to even the most advanced systems for a long time to come. In short, for the time being AI-supported systems can manage clearly defined autonomous tasks – no more, no less.

Steiger: “We refer to systems today as ‘narrow AI’. They can handle only a single problem at a time. These systems still struggle to solve more complex problems, such as those in which moving images, written text and spoken language must be analyzed and recognized in context.”

At ABB Future Labs, however, technology for the AI-based factories of the future is already being developed. Eventually, autonomous industry systems will not only be able to compile and analyze data from different sources, but reach independent conclusions based on that information. They will thus be in a position to make correct decisions, even in situations they have not been programmed to handle.

ABB has already taken the first steps towards this future; for instance, recently an unmanned ferry was directed through Helsinki harbor by remote control. In the autonomous shipping of the future, a single captain could monitor several such ships from land, intervenin gonly when necessary.

More than 1,000 ships and their technical components are already monitored by the nine ABB AbilityTM Collaboration Operations Centers around the globe. This allows companies to anticipate maintenance requirements and have the necessary replacement parts ready when the ship comes into port. It also enables route optimization, which benefits the environment by lowering energy use and CO2 emissions, improves passenger comfortand protects cargo.

Steiger on the environmental aspects of AI: “Today, we are facing a growing need to use resources more effectively. This, coupled with the abundance of data collected by the Internet of Things (IoT), is opening a host of new possibilities for AI. Smart technology represents a real chance to attain the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals by its proposed deadline. This applies to education, the distribution of critical medicines and human rights as much as it does to fighting climate change.”

Furthermore: “To take advantage of these opportunities, however, society needs to be open to new approaches. Regulators, like the rest of us, have not always kept an eye on big advances in technology. What we’re asking of regulators in finance, communications, aviation, pharmaceuticals or transportation is to allow us greater leeway in developing new ideas. We are a country of doers, and doers need space to test the viability of their investments. Test first, regulate second – that should be the rule.”

When asked how suited Switzerland is to this kind of work, Steiger replies: “The conditions in Switzerland are ideal. AI will be at home here for a long time to come. The country has no natural resources, but in its long history has repeatedly reinvented itself and built up worldwide trust in the Swiss brand. We have what it takes to become an important voice in the global AI race. Our universities, experts, start-ups and global corporate AI labs – they all contribute to a small but powerful AI ecosystem. There’s much room for further development. And we should engage in active, international dialog about what has already been achieved. That’s exactly what we’re doing with SwissCognitive’s first spin-off. CognitiveValley is anon-profit movement to position Switzerland around the world as ‘AI Nation Switzerland’. We launched in September 2019 at EPFL inLausanne.”

How will AI impact each of us? Steiger: “We believe that smart technology will enable us to maintain our prosperity. The bandwidth, computing capacity, algorithms and vast amounts of data we have at our disposal today allow us to support the changes taking place, and to prioritize responsible action for our future. We believe that cognitive technology is part of a massive shift. The development may be irreversible, but we can control it. We must tap into this new technology. It should not be used against us, but for us.”

“Artificial intelligence offers us the opportunity
to maintain our prosperity.”
“Artificial intelligence offers us the opportunity to maintain our prosperity.”
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What time frame are we talking about? Steiger: “The changes enabled by AI won’temerge overnight. Companies, institutionsand administrative bodies have to learn howto manage new demands on talent, data, technology and leadership. Far more is technicallypossible today than is actually practiced, butwe have to start first with what we allow inour daily lives. Many projects today are stillin the laboratory phase. Depending on theindustry, this can and will change overnightin some cases.

"As individuals or companies, and as a country, we can prepare by gaining valuable experience and establish the legal framework for the smooth introduction of AI technology. Socio-politically speaking, we must not underestimate the need for dialog. AI sparks fear, and many people wonder: what will happen to my identity – my data – and will I even have a job in the future? Beyond understanding the basic principles, we need to understand these processes as they apply to our lives and values. It is therefore our task in coming years to introduce AI to the public. A failure to familiarize people with AI could impede its growth."

"AI is like any other technology. It will change society and individual behavior in many areas. It will help us in healthcare and hotel reservations, increase efficiency in production processes and optimize mobility. Certain tasks will disappear, job descriptions will change and entire industries will emerge or vanish. These changes will make demands of us as individuals and as a society. Stasis is not an option. Environmental and demographic developments simply pose too great a challenge. Today, the rate of change is no longer measured in generations, but in years – a new reality that requires a new mindset. People’s control over themselves is growing alongside technology. The new system must earn their acceptance.”

This could also be helped by advances that have received too little attention in the AI debate, which so far has often focused on the negative effects. For instance, AI can help visually impaired people experience the world with greater independence. “Seeing AI”, a tool developed by Saqib Shaikh, a Microsoft engineer who lost his eyesight at the age of seven, can read symbols and documents, identify currency and products, recognize friends and even interpret their facial expressions.

Steiger: “Mobile apps such as these are hugely significant to the users concerned. AI can open new opportunities in everyday life for the blind, deaf and physically impaired. As the short film “The Child of Earth” poignantly illustrates, a terminally ill person can travel into space using a virtual reality (VR) headset and experience a new quality of life. AI is more than a tool for optimizing efficiency. When properly applied, it can also inspire an emotional, artistic response."

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