What Will it Mean for Humanity if Artificial Intelligence Solves ALS?

In 2014, Stephen Hawking, one of the world’s leading thinkers and most famous faces of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), spoke out about the dangers of full artificial intelligence (AI).

Hawking was speaking through a digital system developed by Intel that could predict the next word he would use. He warned that unfettered growth in AI could create an super-intelligence so advanced that it would leave humans behind entirely.

Others feel more optimistic about AI. Proponents, including Rollo Carpenter, the mind behind Cleverbot, feel the outlook doesn’t need to be so pessimistic. They argue that humans will have control over AI for the foreseeable future, and the benefits it offers could solve some of the major problems facing our world.

One of the fascinating potential ways AI could benefit humanity is by accelerating the search for cures for rare diseases. It may sound futuristic, but Richard Mead, a neuroscientist at the Sheffield Institute of Translational Neuroscience, says AI is already speeding the process up.

The AI in question doesn’t look like the humanoid robots in Stephen Spielburg’s movie AI, or the murderous HAL in 2001: Space Odyssey. Instead, picture complicated software on a very powerful computer, working tirelessly to analyze the same data a human researcher might. They’re unbiased thinkers, with a capacity to process databases full of information that a human mind simply can’t.

The team in Sheffield landed on ALS to test this method out. They chose it since it was a disease that severely impacted quality of life, but had very limited treatment options.
ALS, sometimes called Lou Gherig’s Disease, is a rare, progressive disease. There are two medicines approved to treat it, and no cure. The disease kills nerve cells in the brainstem, spinal cord, and braid. This leads to muscle weakness, and gradual loss of control over movement. To learn more about ALS, click here.
This isn’t AI’s first appearance in ALS news. The Barrow Neurological Institute recently used it to to help find genes linked to the condition.

If these attempts continue to lead to successes, finding genes, cures, and relevant information, we can expect AI’s presence in medicine to grow. At the moment, it wouldn’t completely void the need for humans in the lab. We would still need scientists, but it would make researching drug leads quicker and cheaper.

This is truly exciting news for the ALS community. A new, powerful mind is on their side, searching full force for a cure.

It also leaves us with another iteration of the question our society returns to with every technological leap. We can envision a dystopian future in which artificial intelligence could have the heavy ethical consequences Hawking warned us of, in which humans have been rendered useless by supercomputers. We can also envision a more immediate future in which these advances make many current jobs obsolete.

At the present moment though, we live in a reality where people struggle with incurable diseases such as ALS. If we have access to a technology that could lead to a cure, then it feels certainly unethical to ignore a community in need because of intangible fears.

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