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AI may present a different kind of revolution

May 28, 2020

Center on the Future of War professor’s new novel on artificial intelligence sheds insight into a maybe not-so-bright future

Want to know what a future with robots and artificial intelligence looks like? 

Let’s just say that if the "2001: A Space Odyssey" author Arthur C. Clarke were still alive, he might be stunned — or perhaps even a little frightened — by today’s challenges.

“We are seeing a change in the human role relative to our machines," said Peter W. SingerSinger is also a professor of practice in the Center on the Future of War and the School of Politics and Global Studies, where he teaches in the online MA in global security program. He also is a strategist and senior fellow at New America and the author of multiple award-winning books., co-author of the new book “Burn-In: A Novel of the Real Robotic Revolution” and one of the world's leading experts on 21st-century security issues. "We’ve seen AI disrupt everything from finance to medicine, and we’re only at the start of this."

Singer presented a virtual talk on May 27 as part of his work this year with ASU’s Center on the Future of War, a partnership between the university and New America, a Washington-based think tank. 

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"Burn-In" by P. W. Singer and August Cole.

“We’re at the space where the cutting edge of hardware and software are crashing together … the trends towards automation, AI and robotics were already there before the coronavirus but all data points to them now being drastically accelerated by it.”

Co-authored with August Cole, “Burn-In” is a techno-thriller about cyber terrorism and a fact-based tour of tomorrow. While it is a novel, Singer (who goes by the pen name of P. W. Singer) said it’s also a work of nonfiction culled from his years of research on AI, robotics, terrorism and the military.

“Peter Singer is one of the most original and significant thought leaders on national and international security issues. He also has the uncanny ability to write books about subjects just before everyone else realizes their importance, from child soldiers to private military contractors to the weaponization of social media,” said Daniel Rothenberg, a professor of practice in the School of Politics and Global Studies who co-directs ASU’s Center on the Future of War. “Now, he has written a techno-thriller about robotics and artificial intelligence which draws attention to very real threats policymakers and the public need to take seriously.”

Singer said big tech offers a utopian view of our future, but “Burn-In” explores the dystopian outcomes of the rapidly expanding influence of artificial intelligence, robots and related technologies in the military and greater society. And now, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, he sees a rapid acceleration of automation, remote work, machines replacing people and other changes in a variety of fields.

“We’ve pushed forward to a level where we never believed we’d be at,” Singer said. “In a couple of weeks, telemedicine has moved forward to where the industry thought it would be 10 years from now.” He added that robots have been used during the pandemic to enforce curfews, deliver groceries and clean hospitals and subways.

“The point of this is that after this outbreak is hopefully done with, we're not going back (to normal society) a hundred percent,” Singer said.

Singer believes we’re on the verge of a new industrial age involving three key trends: radical changes in what work means, including massive job displacement; profound ethical, moral and legal questions emerging as a result of new technologies; and the rise of distinct and transformative types of security vulnerabilities.

Regarding job displacement, Singer cited several studies that state automation will replace anywhere from 9% to 47% of current occupations in the next two decades. He said even the best case scenario is troubling.

“Even if you take the most optimistic view at 9%, it is a really big deal for the economic and society at large,” Singer said. “This is a different kind of industrial revolution.”

He added that just as the last industrial revolution created massive advances, it also destroyed entire industries. These types of changes, Singer explained, produce “economic winners and economic losers at every level.”

When it comes to security vulnerabilities, life imitating art can get downright scary, Singer said.

Last month, hackers made several intrusion attempts to change chlorine levels at wastewater treatment plants, water pumping stations and sewers in Israel. The cyberattack was successfully thwarted Singer said, but technology can provide new types of attacks and crimes as well as expose serious systemic vulnerabilities.

“If you think that small business and local water government treatment facilities in the U.S. have better cybersecurity than the Israeli government,” Singer said, “I have really bad news for you.”

Singer said that AI and technology present large challenges and that it would be wise for leaders to think how to deal with it in the short term rather than the distant future. He said Americans are typically “technologically optimistic” but cautioned there’s a flip side: After all, the robot revolution is no longer the stuff of novels or science fiction.

“’The Terminator’ and ‘The Matrix’ — you name it — would be fine if it stayed in science fiction,” Singer said, “except that now it shapes the future.” 

Top photo courtesy of iStock and Getty Images

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ASU hosts summit to address spread of novel coronavirus

May 28, 2020

College of Health Solutions played host to a virtual gathering of roughly 60 diagnostics leaders from around the world

For the past few months, “vaccine” is a word that has been on everyone’s lips, dominating headlines the world over. But perhaps instead that word should be “diagnostics.”

“The reality is all the great drugs and treatments in the world are not useful unless you have an accurate and timely diagnosis,” said Mara Aspinall, professor of practice at Arizona State University’s College of Health Solutions.

The college, which awarded its first ever master’s degree in biomedical diagnostics in 2015, played host last Friday to a virtual gathering of roughly 60 diagnostics leaders from around the world with expertise in clinical care, private industry, academia, public health, government and insurance. Their goal was to discuss and recommend the best options for using diagnostic testing to safely and effectively reopen society in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Along with Scott Leischow, Nate Wade and Carl Yamashiro, all from the College of Health Solutions, Aspinall led the effort to convene the COVID-19 Diagnostics Summit, inviting key opinion leaders from such entities as the Switzerland-based multinational health care company Roche, the World Economic Forum, the Rockefeller Foundation, Harvard Medical School and more.

Aspinall joined ASU in 2013 after several years helming such powerhouses as Ventana Medical Systems, a billion-dollar division of Roche and a global leader in cancer diagnostics; and Genzyme Genetics, which grew into the country’s leading diagnostic testing company and was sold to LabCorp for $1 billion in 2010. Shortly after, when she met ASU President Michael Crow through a friend, he asked her what ASU could be doing to have more of an impact in the diagnostics field.

“I told him, ‘We can make it an independent discipline,’” she said.

The first year the College of Health Solutions offered the master’s degree in biomedical diagnostics program, 22 students enrolled. Today, it boasts more than 150 graduates, and as the importance of diagnostics plays out on the world stage for all to see, enrollment is growing and ASU is quickly becoming a recognized authority on the subject.

“We pioneered it at ASU,” Aspinall said. “Period.”

So after discussions with colleagues that all seemed to lead to a general consensus that there is a clear need for accurate information about what diagnostics can (and cannot) do to help manage the coronavirus crisis, it only made sense that the College of Health Solutions should be the place to host a summit on the topic.

Ahead of Friday’s meeting, organizers put together a list of six key challenges to address:

1. Appropriate applications of each testing type — What are the key decisions we are trying to answer with the tests? How do the key use cases align with the test characteristics (e.g. skill required to take an effective sample)? Which use cases are most impacted by incorrect sampling, handling,test design (false negatives), time to result, PPV and NPV profiles at various levels of prevalence, cross-reactivity, confirmatory tests, cost and availability of tests today and over the coming weeks, months and perhaps years?

2. Expansion of testing (diagnostic) — How do we best manage the broad portfolio of available and coming diagnostics to more promptly identify and act upon a correct diagnosis (SARS-CoV-2 vs. other viral or bacterial) and severity of symptomatic disease? What about presymptomatic or asymptomatic persons?

3. Expansion of testing (screening) — How can screening best be designed and fine-tuned to provide actionable results in a reasonable time to guide individual management/treatment and community/national/global public health policy, including identifying past viral presence and potential immunity, and presence of current pre- or asymptomatic disease.

4. Role of private industry in expansion of testing — What role can/should private employers play in the expansion of diagnostic testing to help improve community and employee safety and confidence? What guidelines can the employers look to for guidance? Legal/liability issues? How can the diagnostic industry partner with private industry to accelerate test development, production and adoption? How long will this be needed?

5. Contact tracing — What is the minimum process required to guide accurate management of exposed individuals? What role can and should the diagnostics industry play (vs. public health) in the implementation and execution of contact tracing? How should the data be shared with affected individuals and to guide community/population level interventions? What level of privacy is acceptable (individual vs. community benefits)? What actions need to be taken with each identified contact (e.g. additional testing)?

6. Data analysis postpandemic — What steps need to be adopted by the diagnostic industry, other businesses and federal/state/local governments to effectively leverage diagnostics to increase the safety and confidence of the public and specific employee groups (e.g. food industry, first responders), and to gather appropriate surveillance (e.g. changes in prevalence, asymptomatic carriers) and early warning data to inform response planning and decision making?

After a brief presentation by Aspinall to introduce the challenges, summit participants broke up into smaller Zoom groups of eight to 12 people, ensuring everyone had the chance to weigh in and contribute. They examined each challenge with the intention to create guidelines and recommendations on how diagnostics should be best utilized not only during the current crisis, but in the future.

Here are their key takeaways:

• Private industry has a significant role to play in the expansion of testing, and it is critical that those in the diagnostic industry work with private industry toward that purpose.

• There is a strong belief that government has to play a big role in implementing solutions, while at the same time, solutions must be implemented in a way that will work on a local level. Suggestions included identifying local leaders to act as role models, promoting such safety measures as wearing masks, getting tested and staying at home.

• All tests are not for all people at all times. Considerations need to be taken to determine the right test for the right population in the right setting.

• Having a central database that details what diagnostics companies have tried, what their process was, what worked and what did not work is of utmost importance, and is something Aspinall believes ASU “can and should take a leadership role in.”

• Just as important as creating the database is ensuring an infrastructure that will allow it to be shared and used going forward to prevent future pandemics.

At ASU, the College of Health Solutions recently made available a website full of COVID-19 resources, including a list of current diagnostic tests, and summit participant Joshua LaBaer, executive director of the Biodesign Institute, led a team of researchers in developing Arizona’s first saliva-based test.

All of this bolsters Aspinall’s resolve that ASU is more than well-suited to aid in the massive undertaking that is the COVID-19 relief effort.

“(President) Crow says all the time that the university has an obligation to the community,” Aspinall said. “And there was unanimous belief among summit participants that ASU, with all its capabilities and its reputation, is the ideal place to do it.”

Top photo courtesy Pixabay