AI can help rural people ride out Covid-19

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Kevin Scott, Microsoft’s chief technology officer.

Microsoft

It’s easy to imagine artificial intelligence brightening up life in the big city. Self-driving taxis, drones and food-production machines could provide all sorts of conveniences to city dwellers, like shorter commutes and faster package and food delivery.

But technologists don’t spend as much time talking about how AI can help small towns.

Kevin Scott, Microsoft’s chief technology officer, is an exception. Scott grew up in Gladys, Virginia, a farming community in Campbell County. The county’s population of 54,885 decreased by 252 from the prior year, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates. He talks about this part of the world in a new book co-written with Greg Shaw, “Reprogramming the American Dream.”

Scott, who has been working with a type of AI called machine learning since 2003 and helped lead Microsoft’s $1 billion investment last year in OpenAI, believes AI can help people in Gladys and other small towns. While some worry about job losses stemming from adoption of AI in the workplace, he’s hopeful that rural entrepreneurs can tap AI to build businesses that can solve local problems, and even improve people’s jobs.

“If your job is about performing one or a small number of highly repetitive tasks, if those tasks can be done less expensively with automation, and your employer can’t find a way to leverage your ingenuity and industry to make their business better, then yes, watch out for AI. But that’s a lot of ifs,” Scott and Shaw write in the book.

“The far more likely path for the foreseeable future if AI enhancing human productivity by doing the gruntiest of grunt work and freeing up humans to do things they are much better suited to do.”

The book arrives at a time when more people have time to read it. In the U.S. and abroad people have been ordered to stay home to avoid the coronavirus, including in Campbell County, which has 10 cases, according to the state health department. Unemployment increased in Virginia in March, although county-level data is not yet available.

With the pandemic foremost on everybody’s mind, Scott discussed with CNBC some ways that AI could come in handy for rural people in a future outbreak: 

Smart delivery vehicles. Autonomous vehicles like the one from Silicon Valley start-up Nuro that take up less space than cars could deliver goods to people safely and without human contact.

“I think about my grandmother, a 90-year-old woman living in a very sparsely populated part of Central Virginia,” Scott said during an interview on Microsoft’s Teams communication software on Tuesday. “She’s lucky enough to be in just really good health. She lives independently in the same house my mom was raised in, and the day is coming when she’s not going to be able to drive to pick up her prescription.” Smarter delivery vehicles  could lengthen the amount of time she could live independently, he said.

More modern digital health care. Without a top-tier research hospital in the area, Gladys residents don’t have access to high-quality care if they come down with serious illnesses. Systems that count on AI to diagnose patients and refer them to specialists could help fill the gap, Scott said. Predictive models, coupled with biometric sensing, could contribute to early detection of diseases, and AI could play a role in delivering telemedicine, he said.

Better interactions. Small-town people don’t always have high-speed internet connections. It’s something Microsoft has been trying to address since 2017 with its Airband effort, and the company has worked with partners to bring connectivity to Virginia’s Charlotte and Halifax counties, which lie directly southeast and south of Campbell County, respectively. People with slow connections at home might ordinarily run into difficulty when they try to meet with people over video-calling software, which have become more popular in the coronavirus age.

Teams, which is one of several options for video calls, draws on a type of AI known as reinforcement learning, which involves training systems better through repeated trial and error, to optimize call quality. “It can even fill in in some instances when there are tiny drops in the audio stream because of poor network connectivity,” Scott said. “These digital tools are the things that in a world where we’re dealing with the Covid crisis, they just need them more than ever, I think to have some more sense of continuity in their lives.”

UBI vs using AI to lower costs

One idea that people have floated when talking about the rise of AI is universal basic income — the idea of governments sending people money to help pay for the cost of living because of lost economic opportunity. It got a fresh wave of attention with one-time 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang proposing that every U.S. citizen could receive $1,000 per month. Scott isn’t exactly the biggest fan of the idea. In the book he and Shaw call it “a blunt instrument.”

Still, he said in an email that the relief checks the U.S. government has handed out in recent weeks are a good thing.

“One of the things I’m hopeful for is that we choose to go a step further, and to invest in the uses of technology to make the costs of subsistence — food, healthcare, housing, education, and so on — a lot less than they are right now so that those relief checks would go further for everyone who needs them,” he wrote.

Scott suggested that at least in Gladys, the virus might not lead many businesses to close.

“Gladys is a very, very small town,” Scott said. “It doesn’t even have a stoplight on U.S. 501, which is the big route that runs through the town. So I think many of the businesses that were there qualify as essential, just because it’s a convenience store and a Family Dollar, which sells limited groceries. There isn’t even a grocery store in the town.”

People’s social lives are off-kilter, though, he said. They can’t go to church activities, he said, and charitable programs that normally help the needy have been put on hold.  

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