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Despite some doomsaying headlines, artificial intelligence (AI) has the potential to make the world a better place. It can be harnessed for good — with the right knowledge and tools.
Take, for example, global challenges like climate change, an aging population, and food insecurity — all of which are the subject of AI research projects at the University of California San Diego. Much of the work is focused on advancing how the world uses AI to create tools to do things like inform climate action, develop better healthcare models, and improve people’s lives. Here’s a look at five areas where its research is trying to push breakthroughs for the greater good.
On July 4, 2023, the world passed a grim milestone as it reached the hottest average global temperature ever recorded, putting the world on course to notch the hottest year on record.
Critical to combating climate change is understanding how and where it’s happening, along with its probable impact on individual regions and communities. Climate models help by crunching massive datasets of simulation data, measurements from weather balloons and ground stations, satellite data, and more to predict extreme weather and other impacts.
The problem is that processing all that data takes time — potentially months — to get usable results. Now, UC San Diego researchers and colleagues at other universities, working with funding from the US Department of Energy (DOE), are harnessing AI to dramatically shorten the time to get meaningful climate predictions. “We want to have the results within a week, so that we can really accelerate decision-making for climate scientists,” said Rose Yu, an assistant professor at UC San Diego’s Jacobs School of Engineering and the Halıcıoğlu Data Science Institute. The university’s climate modeling project is already showing results: AI models developed by its researchers are currently aiding in wildfire response and coral reef preservation.
Closely related to the climate crisis is how we power our industrial society as we transition from fossil fuels to sources that don’t emit greenhouse gasses. On the list of alternatives is nuclear power, but conventional fission plants create lasting radioactive waste and can melt down, fueling resistance to development.
That’s why fusion power, which would create no long-term waste and whose plants couldn’t melt down, has been so attractive to researchers for decades. But with fusion power seemingly perpetually 30 years away, it’s easy to lose hope that the dream of virtually limitless and clean nuclear energy will be realized any time soon.
But UC San Diego researchers, in collaboration with General Atomics, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, and Sapientai, funded by another DOE grant, are building a crucial resource for finally realizing our fusion future. The Fusion Data Platform, based at the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC) at UC San Diego, is an AI-powered platform for researchers to model reactions, hardware configurations, and more, using vast amounts of experimental data to crack the fusion code.
“This is the beginning of a new chapter in our cooperation to advance fusion energy science and education,” said SDSC director Frank Würthwein, who is also a professor in the department of physics and the Halıcıoğlu Data Science Institute.
An aging global population and rising healthcare costs have already strained healthcare resources, and the problem is on track to worsen. But AI has the potential to help ease the burden by assisting with new treatments and automation to reduce the workloads of care providers.
For example, an AI-powered project at UC San Diego has discovered a potential treatment for infections caused by the antibiotic-resistant Pseudomonas aeruginosa bacteria in hospitals and immunocompromised people. A research team led by Fatemeh Askarian, a scientist at the UC San Diego School of Medicine, used AI and X-ray crystallography to reveal the most effective subdomains of bacterial antigens to use in future vaccines.
Another has fast-tracked gene research, finding one in a million gene activation sequences for possible use in new treatments. Finding these so-called synthetic extreme DNA sequences would be impossible without AI since it would require tens of millions of wet lab experiments, each requiring weeks to complete. “There are countless practical applications of this AI-based approach,” said James T. Kadonaga, a UC San Diego School of Biological Sciences professor.
And on the automation front, a collaboration between medical records provider Epic Systems and UC San Diego Health has been testing AI-powered chat for patients to get answers to their questions based on their medical history, with review by a doctor in the loop. So far, the results have been promising and offer the potential to give doctors more time for face-to-face interactions and get patients quicker access to care.
The world has enough food to feed everyone. The problem of food insecurity, which the US Department of Agriculture defines as “limited or uncertain access to adequate food,” is one of distribution rather than production.
Now, researchers at UC San Diego and other partners are using AI and a grant from the National Science Foundation to help solve the problem of food deserts — that is, urban communities more than a mile away from healthy groceries and rural ones more than 10 miles away. The team’s NOURISH platform combines public and crowdsourced data to create maps of opportunity for small business owners, urban growers, and others to fill the grocery gap.
“We are approaching it as a knowledge-based recommendation challenge,” explained Amarnath Gupta, a research scientist at UC San Diego. “We are developing a number of information integration, natural language processing, graph analytics, and conversational AI techniques to offer a comprehensive solution for several user categories.”
Drawing increased attention to these food deserts is the first step in solving the challenge of food insecurity. When combined with action, it could give people — first in California and then elsewhere in the United States — more options for accessing healthy food, improve the health of entire communities, and provide a model for global action.
Vital to creating the next generation of breakthroughs for solving global challenges is education, and AI is changing the game here, too.
Some worry that the disruption won’t be for the better. For example, New York City’s public school administrators banned ChatGPT on school networks and devices earlier this year. But others, including educators and researchers at UC San Diego, are embracing AI as a tool for educational good.
For example, R. Stuart Geiger, an assistant professor at UC San Diego’s Halıcıoğlu Data Science Institute and the Department of Communication, actually requires students to use AI when writing papers to help them develop AI-related skills. “Coming up with the right prompt that generates an essay that’s factual and isn’t hallucinating anything and gets the argument right is harder than one might think,” Geiger said.
Tricia Bertram Gallant, director of the Academic Integrity Office and Triton Testing Center at UC San Diego, also sees opportunity for AI in academics. She likens the probable impact of generative AI on academics to the advent of handheld calculators in the 1970s. In both cases, she believes technology can reduce students’ cognitive load to let them tackle bigger challenges.
“Students will need to use generative AI because they’ll be using it in both their personal and professional life, and we are going to be learning and writing with these tools in the future,” she said. “So why would we stop them now?”
To learn more about how UC San Diego is advancing how the world uses AI, click here.