By Jack Cumming

At the LeadingAge California Annual Conference this year, the “Panel of Pundits” was composed of technologists discussing artificial intelligence. It was a reminder of how suddenly AI has come into popular consciousness with the oddly named ChatGPT. AI is a very hot topic. David Lindeman of UC Berkeley presided with Front Porch’s Kari Olson, Amazon Alexa’s Emerson Sklar, and IDEO’s Savannah Kunovsky as panelists.

The Future Is Now

Most of the panel spoke of potentialities and the future. One big benefit, though, at least for me, was Savannah Kunovsky’s suggestion that we call it “augmented” intelligence rather than using the word “artificial.” Notions left over from the 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey have unleashed fears of the unknown. But, and this is a big BUT, AI has the potential to accelerate discovery, to find cures for diseases, and to help humans to live more fulfilling lives.

The potentialities for senior living seem enormous, especially if the capabilities of augmented intelligence are integrated with machine capabilities to keep people independent well into old age. Imagine a person in the early stages of dementia assisted by AI to maintain cognitive function and to avoid self-destructive behaviors. Is that already in the works? I hope so, though it wasn’t discussed by the panel.

Thank Heaven for Progress

In fact, the panel didn’t probe the potential for AI-guided robotics at all until the very end. While it’s true that change can be used for good or ill, most change advances the human experience. Thank heaven for central heat; indoor plumbing; educative television; and more recently, massive connectivity around the globe. AI can integrate seamlessly into this common experience. The spam and fraudulent calls that my cellphone brings me daily are greatly annoying, but I don’t want to give up the benefits that come with my smartphone functions.

With all transformations, people have to adapt. It doesn’t make sense that AI will take over from humans. Machines don’t have emotions, and humans generally create tools to enhance their lives, despite the destructive politics of war and weaponry. The fear of job displacement is real but should not be an inhibitor. The people who built outhouses of old became skilled plumbers, and thank heaven, too, for that transition. People are resilient and adaptable.

How Is It Possible?

There are two relatively recent developments that make “augmented” intelligence possible. One is that the connectivity provided by the internet and the plummeting cost of storage capacity have allowed unheard amounts of data to be available. We can call that “big data.”

The other development is the similarly plummeting cost of computational power. Jensen Huang, the CEO of Nvidia, talks of computing cost dropping to a millionth of what it was and being poised to drop again to a millionth of that millionth. He notes that computing power is almost becoming free.

If we take that big data and combine it with free computing, it’s obvious that big things are possible. What we need is the connective tissue to analyze big data to reveal the predictive insights it provides. Predictive models have been with us for generations. What’s exciting is that people like Fei-Fei Li have had the insight to recognize that we can learn from brain function how better to enhance machine processing than was possible with the linear, looping processing of the past.

It’s Exciting

Think of how satisfying it is to have a eureka moment. Those are the times when you see something clearly in an instant. Compare that with the tortured reasoning involved in working through a complex decision or mathematical conundrum. Bringing that alacrity to AI is revolutionary. Imagine how aging people can be assisted when big data combines instantly with computation to spare them distress. We can embrace that future and begin to bring it to senior living now.

It was exhilarating to be in the room on May 14, 2024, when a panel focused on senior living embraced positively and enthusiastically the potentialities of augmented intelligence. Already computers augment our memories and our access to information beyond anything we might have imagined. Now we can take the next step in this exponentially increasing triumph of the human spirit to make life better for everyone, but particularly for those older people we serve and whose future is our future.

Kudos to Jeannee Parker Martin and her team for bringing this panel to the conference.