The AI conundrum: friend or foe?

By François Malherbe and Martin Whiteley

Artificial Intelligence (or ‘AI’) is all the rage across the globe. In the last three decades it has evolved from a fictional futuristic concept to an integral part of our daily lives. It is mentioned on news channels, movies, social media, and in diverse areas from banking to driverless cars. It is even cited as the technology behind reuniting Paul McCartney with his long-deceased friend John Lennon for a virtual duet.

Waking up after three years of pandemic, in 2023 we suddenly start hearing about ChatGPT, deep fakes and voice clones, and they are becoming cultural phenomena. A fear of machines taking over the planet is also on the rise, like something out of The Terminator movies.

The dual nature of AI, hailed as both a technological gift and a potential threat to humanity, reflects the complex and multifaceted reality of this rapidly advancing field. This debate highlights its power and versatility. But what exactly is AI, and can it help humanity?

What is AI?

Artificial Intelligence is the ability to train machines to perform specific tasks. It is the use of computer programs that allows a machine to read a huge amount of data, from any source, recognise patterns, learn from the process, and do something with that information; often in seconds or fractions of a second. In modern times, the objective is to mimic problem-solving and decision-making capabilities of the human mind whereby machines work out their methods, without needing to be explicitly told what to do by any human-developed algorithms.

The term ‘Artificial Intelligence’ was first coined in the 1950s and referred to systems using formal logic to solve relatively simple problems. While this approach has been successful in many fields, like providing specialised knowledge and decision support in medicine or finance, it was not good at handling complex and uncertain real-world data.

This led to the emergence of machine learning, where computers are trained to emulate human thought processes, like the use of personal assistants such as Siri and Alexa today. With increased computing power and data storage, more advanced algorithms are constantly being developed, leading to ever-more advanced decision support systems. For example, tools such as ChatGPT, an AI-powered language model developed by OpenAI, can produce a complete thesis on just about any topic within seconds.

However, this technological revolution has a long way to run yet. Data quality and inter-connectivity is still poor in many areas and there is a lot of false information out there that can be used by machines to come to inaccurate conclusions, and make poor decisions. That said, AI could be the answer to some of our prayers.

How can AI help humanity?

AI has already seamlessly integrated into the fabric of our daily lives: virtual assistants embedded in your smartphone or smart TV, personalised advertisements on your social media, facial recognition to unlock your phone, text editors or Autocorrect, the list is long! 

In today’s interconnected world, the discourse revolves around the advent of the Fifth Industrial Revolution, where core principles like sustainability and the integration of AI stand at the forefront of its realisation. According to the United Nations Environment Program, ‘Technology has caused many environmental and social problems, but it is also key to addressing environmental degradation, climate change, food scarcity, waste management, and other pressing global challenges. Technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, blockchain, IoT [Internet of Things], geo-spatial mapping are powering the fifth industrial revolution and have the potential to help us solve our climate goals.’

One area where AI proves to be extremely useful is in environmental management, where the analysis of satellite images is crucial to determine the impact of deforestation, forest fires and illicit logging activities. Similarly, there is now a global air quality network aggregating data from 140 countries, offering insights on the impact of real-time air quality on populations, and helping to determine health protection measures (


The impact of AI on humanity is inherently intertwined with how we harness its capabilities and addresses its challenges. When developed and utilised responsibly, AI has the potential to bring about benefits. However, it also demands careful consideration of ethical, regulatory, and societal concerns to ensure it remains a force for good, enhancing our lives while preserving our values and well-being.

François Malherbe is a Senior Lecturer in Chemistry and Environmental Science at Swinburne University of Technology.

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