Artificial intelligence carries promise from farming, to detecting heart disease or cyber attacks

Thursday, 15 April 2021

Artificial intelligence using drones is set to play an increasing role in farming. Image: Getty

The growth of artificial intelligence brings huge opportunities and will transform science, but needs careful planning, Australia’s Chief Scientist, Cathy Foley says.

Dr Foley took part in a panel discussion  on the challenges and applications of artificial intelligence for Cosmos magazine. Her fellow panellists were Adelaide cardiologist and artificial intelligence researcher Johan Verjans, and quantum computing luminary Vikram Sharma.

In the discussion, Dr Verjans, an expert in medical machine learning at the Australian Institute for Machine Learning in Adelaide, explores the use of artificial intelligence to detect, predict and diagnose heart disease. He likens AI in medicine to the autopilot on an aeroplane, as a tool that can enhance and improve the work of a specialist but not replace it.

He points to the ability of artificial intelligence systems to “see” in quite different ways from a human observer. For example, AI systems can differentiate a male from a female by looking at the back of a retina, a task beyond human ophthalmologists, and can use retinal images to predict cardiovascular risk factors such as age, smoking status and blood pressure.

Dr Foley says AI is here and it is imperative for Australian research, science and industry to recognise its potential and engage with it fully, across the spectrum of new technologies and ways of working.

The new digital tools are also changing the way scientists work, requiring scientists to curate data in ways that can be shared and successfully used by artificial intelligence algorithms – which can go to work on the data “like that robotic vacuum cleaner that cleans up the house when you’re not there”.

Quantum computers will bring capabilities beyond classical computing, such as the ability to design new much more efficient catalysers for creating hydrogen, or new fertilisers or medicines.

At the same time, it is important to be aware of the implications for privacy, data use and ethical development.

In the Cosmos discussion, Dr Foley compares the step change in artificial intelligence and machine learning with the advent of the Internet when countries had been unprepared for the social, privacy and ethical issues it has brought. The Australian Government is working to ensure it is ahead of the game in preparedness for artificial intelligence, work that Dr Foley is supporting. The government already has a significant body of work on the way forward, including a roadmap prepared by the CSIRO’s Data61 in 2019.

Artificial intelligence is set to transform sectors from health care, to city planning, to farm management.

In agriculture, machine learning systems are being developed to identify and destroy weeds selectively, significantly reducing herbicide use, to analyse soil health, and to monitor the condition of farm animals.

At swimming beaches, systems are being developed to detect people needing help in the surf, and to identify rips.

In health, AI is being developed for applications such as detecting skin cancers, and has been used to potential therapies for COVID-19.

Dr Sharma says artificial intelligence can help detect cyber attacks and threats through the capacity to find signals in datasets that are so enormous they overwhelm conventional computers.

His company Quintessence Labs has created what he describes as the world’s fastest quantum random number generator. He says while quantum computing will bring the capacity to break the world’s encryption codes, quantum technologies will also provide the solutions through exploiting the underlying randomness in quantum systems.

The Cosmos interview is available here.

Last updated: Thursday, 15 April 2021