Artificial Intelligence has become a fact of life.  It is here to stay and will no doubt evolve further over time.  How humankind adapt will likely determine whether it will be “Boon or Bust”.  It certainly has benefits, some of which we are already seeing, but it also has downside risks too.  How the world handles those risks will decide where the world goes!



Historical perspective

It seems Artificial Intelligence (AI) is gaining traction in the world today, and, it is steadily changing our lives!  The question is whether it will benefit humankind or simply result in disaster.  Movies and television have already shown us the “cyborg” world with sometimes frightening effect, although humankind mostly wins in the end.  According to an article by K Warick published in Science Direct in 2012, “cyborg” is a short form for “cybernetic organism” or one that is “made up of both biological and technical elements”.  Given this, even a human with artificial body parts is a cyborg.  While this, in its basic form, is AI, the world has moved on considerably.

“There is only one condition in which we can imagine managers not needing subordinates, and masters not needing slaves.  This condition would be that each instrument could do its own work, at the word of command or by intelligent anticipation, like the statues of Daedalus or the tripods made by Hephaestus, of which Homer relates that “Of their own motion they entered the conclave of Gods on Olympus”, as if a shuttle should weave of itself, and a plectrum should do its own harp playing”.  Attributed to Aristotle

The fact is that AI in one shape or form has been with us for centuries stretching back to ancient times.  The foundations of what we see in AI today probably began in the 17th Century when philosophers began exploring the concept of mechanical reasoning through the belief that logical operations could lead to machines that mirror human intelligence.

In ancient times people constructed mechanical items which they referred to as “automatons” which came from Greek and meant “acting of one’s own will”.  As early as 400 BCE, there is reference found to a mechanical pigeon reputedly built by a friend of the philosopher Plato.  There are numerous other references to automated machines in use, including “artificial servants, autonomous killing machines, surveillance systems, and sex robots” according to E.R. Truitt in an article in the Mit Press Reader.  Similar references are found in ancient India.

ChatGPT when posed with the question “The History of Artificial Intelligence” responded that the birth of AI, as we know it today, actually goes back to the 1950s and was used in a conference at Dartmouth College by John Mcarthy.  In its earliest form, AI focused on “reasoning and problem-solving”.  In the same year, Allen Newell and Herbert A Simon wrote a programme to prove mathematical theorems called “Logic Theorist”.  During the 1960s we saw the development of systems and computer programmes from human expertise.  Of particular note was Joseph Weizenbaum’s creation of “ELIZA” a programme that could have natural language conversations – perhaps a precursor to what many of us regularly use on our phones today!

The 1970s saw systems being developed in medical diagnosis and chemical analysis – “Dedral” and “MYCIN”.  The decade also witnessed the ability of AI systems to store and manipulate data.  However, in the next decade, the 1980s, commonly referred to as the “AI Winter”, progress dipped with a fall in development as funding became scarce and there were limited results.  The 1990s reversed the trend somewhat with machine learning algorithms being developed and increased use of neural networks for pattern recognition tasks.  Perhaps one of the big breakthroughs in this decade was IBM’s “Deep Blue v Gary Kasparov” chess match, where the computer defeated the Chess Master.

The big AI push came with the new millennium.  Significant improvements were seen in image and speech recognition and big tech companies started investing in AI research resulting in “virtual assistants” such as “Siri” and “Alexa” which are now firmly entrenched in most people’s daily lives.  At the same time, we saw the advent of self-driven vehicles and significant advancement in the use of AI in healthcare, finance, natural language processing and robotics – remember the use of robots by Rwanda during the Covid pandemic!

Where is it used today?

Chat GPT and Bard to the rescue!

When asked where AI is used today, the response was 16 and 10 respectively by ChatGPT and Bard in different areas!  Perhaps the most prevalent is in healthcare for medical imaging analysis particularly in radiology, predictive analytics to help manage resources efficiently, and support through use of chatbots and virtual assistants – it will be remembered Rwanda used robots during the Covid-19 pandemic, and indeed, the robots used still roam around the arrivals area in Kigali airport.

Perhaps even more prevalent, and in some cases rather annoying when using the internet, is the suggestions one gets propagated by your search history.  This also extends to the use of chatbots to help you decide what you want to purchase.  And of course, AI allows your seller to manage inventory and optimise supply chains.  One also sees it with TV streaming apps which, once a pattern has developed, tells you what to watch next based on your viewing history.

In the finance world, algorithms are used to detect frauds, which is now extensively being used by banks.  Data analytics are also extensively used in the financial sector to help with investment decisions and in monitoring unusual transactions that need to be reported.

Transportation is using AI in a big way with self-drive vehicles, map applications to identify routes and intelligent traffic light systems to ensure smooth flow of traffic, although this does assume road discipline which unfortunately is lacking in most of the Eastern Africa region!  It extends, in many parts of the world, to letting one know at the bus stop when the next bus is due.  The world already has aircraft that “fly by wire” wherein the pilot can allow the plane to fly itself.  However, there are risks with this which were clearly evident with the Boeing 737 Max.

Education too has benefited from advancement in AI with the ability by teachers to customise learning for their students and in some cases also use automated grading and assessment.  In essence it can carry out the planning for teachers and help them in the review process.

In many sectors, AI is being used to deal with repetitive tasks leading to more efficiency and accuracy in the output.  The legal world can now use AI to generate contracts and also for reviewing documents.  In manufacturing, repetitive tasks are being managed using AI resulting with greater safety and of course productivity.  Its use in agriculture is also becoming more of an advantage to farmers.

There is clearly no end in sight and AI will no doubt continue to evolve, more often than not with a view to making life easier.

The dangers

When ChatGPT was asked if AI meant the end of the world as humankind know it today, its response was: “Artificial intelligence does not inherently spell the end of the world, but it does raise important ethical, societal, and existential questions that require careful consideration and responsible development”.  Bard gave a roughly similar answer to the question, saying: “While some experts believe that AI could eventually become so powerful that it could pose a threat to human existence, others believe that such fears are unfounded, and that AI can be a force for good in the world”.  But there are undoubtedly risks and ethical issues that we must be aware of.

AI is being used to automate a large number of things and in areas that we have taken for granted.  Perhaps, the use of it in developing automated weapons is a major concern and brings us back to where we started in this Commentary – the cyborg.  Such weapons will be similar to what we commonly refer to today as “weapons of mass destruction” but not requiring humans to do anything.  The result: a renewed arms race with heightened risk of accidental or intentional war.

Bust – AI could become so intelligent that it surpasses those that developed it.  Would this super intelligence run amok and destroy humankind?  Certainly, there have been many such scenarios in works of fiction and in the movies.  While it could become a reality, ethical use of AI should be able to prevent such an occurrence, or at least one hopes as much!

Perhaps one area which is of considerable concern, is that the development of AI will displace the need for humans in certain areas.  This is not as far-fetched as it sounds given that we are already seeing automation killing jobs that have been around for years.  High unemployment always results in disruptions in society with increased crime and obnoxious behaviour, which is a worry if jobs are lost at a rapid speed.  On the other hand, AI should be able to create new avenues of employment, although this will require wholescale re-education of today’s workforce, assuming they are willing.

Regulation both at country level and globally will be a critical success factor as AI develops further.

Ethical considerations

In October 2016, the World Economic Forum listed nine ethical issues that they foresee with AI (


1.       Respect, protection and promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms and human dignity.

2.       Living in peaceful, just, and interconnected societies.

3.       Ensuring diversity and inclusiveness.

4.       Environment and ecosystems flourishing.

UNESCO Core Values on AI

All these are valid concerns that we must be aware of if AI is going to be a boon rather than a bust.  Indeed, the ethical concerns are at the top of many of the world’s global institutions and UNESCO in November 2021 issued recommendations which are believed to be the first ever published.  The thrust of the Recommendation is to say who should be in “control of these technologies”.  Clearly, there is a need for both institutional and legal frameworks globally, emphasising that the “self-regulatory model” will not work if humankind is to cover itself against the possible dangers associated with AI.  Whether this can become a reality remains to be seen.  There are four core values that are envisaged by UNESCO (see box).

While acknowledging that AI has “created many opportunities globally”, UNESCO admits that it does “raise profound ethical concerns”.  According to Gabriela Ramos, Assistant Director-General for Social and Human Sciences of UNESCO, “The world is set to change at a pace not seen since the deployment of the printing press six centuries ago”.

The future

Artificial Intelligence has become a fact of life.  It is here to stay and will no doubt evolve further over time.  How humankind adapt will likely determine whether it will be “Boon or Bust”.  It certainly has benefits, some of which we are already seeing, but it also has downside risks too.  How the world handles those risks will decide where the world goes!

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