Mind Matters Natural and Artificial Intelligence News and Analysis
Cafeteria tables
Cafeteria tables
Photo by Roozbeh Eslami

How Can AI Help Us With What We Care About?

Instead of making us part of things we don’t care about?

How could the Egyptians have built the pyramids? A variety of theories abounds, involving Biblical figures or extraterrestrials to show how could such “primitive” people build such massive, well-engineered structures?

Careful research (and, possibly, diminished arrogance) has shown that ancient cultures were building these extraordinary structures by doing what humans have always done: They relied on tools to leverage their way past the problems.

Ricardo Liberato (CC BY-SA 2.0)

We are tool-creating and tool-using creatures. When confronted with a problem, we develop a tool—whether logs that can roll stones or exquisitely engineered nanotech—to overcome it.

And, despite the misguided hype, AI is just another tool. So it is encouraging to read about the ways that Japanese firm Hitachi is using AI as a tool to provide services that, as Bernard Marr notes at Forbes, would otherwise be difficult or unavailable :

  • More patient-friendly healthcare: Hitachi is working to develop AI to detect early signs of possible cancer through urine samples collected at home at room temperature and mailed, as opposed to going for a blood test. It makes life easier for children who fear doctors and tests.
  • Minimizing food waste: The USDA estimates that 30-40% of food in the US is wasted, with hospitals among the worst offenders. Part of the problem is that sick people have consumption patterns that are not easy to predict:

“The system works by using a camera mounted on a trolley that collects trays, taking pictures of the leftovers. The company’s deep learning algorithms then examine the images to provide analysis,” writes “The Spoon.” “By doing this post-meal analysis, Hitachi’s systems can recognize patterns in the leftovers that humans otherwise could not see. Japan Times writes that nurses often check leftovers now, but the task adds to their workloads and they are not trained nutritionists.”

Kerri Adams, “How AI is Being Used to Reduce Food Waste” at foodable Network

Take a look at the iPhone sitting in front of you. It arrived as a finished product to you on a container ship, but each element of its manufacture was also shipped in turn — from crude oil deliveries to a refinery, to silicon for glassmakers and electronic components, and from ores to be processed into metals, to the wholesale transportation of wires, chips and plastics. The phone also needs to be charged: oil products or biomass are transported daily to power stations, generating the electricity through wires that run into your home — themselves made of concrete, sand, wood, metal and ceramics. In fact, 90 percent of almost everything is transported by ship at some point. It is the backbone of the globalized, connected society we live in. Ships are effectively floating power stations, some with the ability to burn 300 tonnes of fuel a day.

James Mitchell, “The uncounted cost of shipping’s environmental impact” at GreenBiz

Hitachi’s approach to cutting the energy waste is “AI,Captain!”: “With the help of AI, Stena Line captains can consider several variables, such as currents, weather conditions, shallow water, and speed through water – all in various combinations. All of which would be impossible to do manually.” The entire fleet is expected to be AI-assisted by 2021.

Too often the hype surrounding it obscures these benefits, possibly redirecting research dollars to ill-conceived goals. Instead, let’s put AI to those uses, like Hitachi is attempting, for which it is well-suited. AI cannot replace us, but it can help us.

Also by Brendan Dixon: The real future of self-driving cars is better human drivers Manufacturers are improving safety by incorporating warning systems developed for self-driving cars into conventional models. This human-plus-machine combination is proving more potent than the machine-only hype/promise.


Autopilot is not just another word for “asleep at the wheel” As a recent fatal accident in Florida shows, even sober, attentive drivers often put too much trust into Tesla’s Autopilot system, with disastrous results

Brendan Dixon

Fellow, Walter Bradley Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Brendan Dixon is a Software Architect with experience designing, creating, and managing projects of all sizes. His first foray into Artificial Intelligence was in the 1980s when he built an Expert System to assist in the diagnosis of software problems at IBM. Since then, he’s worked both as a Principal Engineer and Development Manager for industry leaders, such as Microsoft and Amazon, and numerous start-ups. While he spent most of that time other types of software, he’s remained engaged and interested in Artificial Intelligence.

How Can AI Help Us With What We Care About?