Recently, I binge-watched all of the latest season of the X-Files , one of my favorite television shows of all time. The popular 1990s science fiction series re turned for a 2-season reboot, and, much to my delight, special agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully have been investigating the strange and unexplained without missing a beat. A particularly memorable episode from season 11 covers the hot topic of artificial intelligence (AI). To clarify before we go any further, AI and robotics are not the same thing. Misuse of these two terms occurs often in pop culture and leads to inaccurate information and opinions surrounding both of these technologies. To distinguish the two, think in terms of AI as software and robotics as hardware. When combined, they represent what people think of as a “robot” or “droid.” Usually when someone refers to AI or robots “taking over the world someday,” the person means artificially intelligent robots—a combination of AI and robotics (“Robotics Vs AI: The Difference Explained,” John Spacey; April 18, 2016; simplicable.com/new/robotics-vs-artificial-intelligence).
In the X-Files episode, Mulder and Scully’s world is saturated in AI, robotics, and every technology in between, from ordering at a non-human-staffed sushi restaurant to iPad home security control systems and even driverless car services. Leading with the understanding that this technology functions by learning, reacting, and anticipating a human’s actions and needs, the audience watches as Mulder and Scully are thrown in the midst of a “robot takeover.” Drones follow their every move, self-driving cars race them down the highway at fatal speeds, and home control systems turn up the gas—literally blowing up Scully’s house!
It is implied that this takeover happens because Mulder refuses to tip the robot sushi chefs for a botched order earlier that evening at dinner with Scully. With literal seconds left to tip the restaurant through an app, it looks like the robots will finally win and begin their global domination until Mulder decides to leave a tip. This action appeases the technology, and things go back normal instantly. Immediately afterwards, Mulder receives a message on his phone from the digital sushi restaurant chefs saying, “We learn from you.” This is a chilling reminder that the technology we make is watching and anticipating our every move.
I thought this X-Files episode was clever and timely as technology continues to improve and ingrain itself into our society. The episode blends together actual AI stories in the news and user frustration about software bugs and glitches with a healthy dose of science fiction robot antics all in 1 hour. This well-executed combination prompts the viewer to ponder the possibilities of the future of humankind and technology—even though it is silly to think Siri could be controlling our lives one day.
AI, Hospitals, and Healthcare
There is some truth to this post-episode anxiety though. AI and robotics technology are shaping the future in major ways. Lately, many credible experts and scientists, from Elon Musk to even the recently departed Stephen Hawking, are speaking out about the dangers of AI (“Stephen Hawking Warns AI Can End Mankind,” Rory Cellan-Jones, Dec. 2 2014; http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-30290540). However, there are also opposing opinions and predictions that the most advanced AI will never be able to learn and react as quickly as the human mind. Here are some of the practical ways AI, robotics, and artificially intelligent robots are poised to change human life now and in the future.
The medical field is a sector where AI, robotics, and AI robots can make a significant impact. Surgeon-controlled robots are a valuable technology that makes surgical procedures run smoother and faster than in the past due to machine-level precision and inhuman rotation and reach. The DaVinci, which specializes in minimally invasive surgery, is a popular robot used in hospital operating rooms to assist surgeons. Via three small incisions in the patient, DaVinci functions as an extension of the surgeon’s hands. Since these are robot hands, they have more rotation and can bend further than a human hand, thus making the DaVinci’s movements more precise than any surgeon could ever be, even in his prime. The cameras on the machine provide a clear view for the surgeon (“DaVinci Surgery,” 2018 ; davincisurgery.com). A surgeon is very skilled and precise with her movements and decisions, but DaVinci makes the surgeon 100% better at her job than she already is, which means less invasive and more efficient surgeries.
Robots are also designed to meticulously sterilize and clean any space in healthcare facilities. The Xenex Robot was responsible for a 70% drop in chances of MRSA ( Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus ) and C. diff ( Clostridium difficile ) infections when it cleaned facilities in the Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, N.Y. A human cannot guarantee that level of sterilization in cleaning abilities alone. In fact, there are numerous robots designed to complete the “heavy lifting” aspect of medicine, such as distributing and moving pharmaceuticals, drawing blood, even lifting patients out of bed (“9 Exciting Facts About Medical Robots,” 2018; medicalfuturist.com/9-exciting-medical-robot-facts).