Yesterday, the White House announced the creation of a new committee that will coordinate federal efforts related to artificial intelligence. The move makes sense given the rapid rise of AI, but the new group better be prepared to tackle all that AI has to offer—both the good and the bad.
Michael Kratsios, deputy CTO at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), made the announcement on Thursday at an AI summit held in Washington DC. Called the Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence, the group will function as a subset of the National Science and Technology Council, and chaired by top officials from the OSTP, the National Science Foundation (NSF), and DARPA—the Pentagon’s advanced concepts development wing.
“As artificial intelligence transforms everything from agriculture to manufacturing to transportation, the potential for AI remains breathtaking,” said Kratsios at the meeting. “But we cannot be passive. To realize the full potential of AI for the American people, it will require the combined efforts of industry, academia, and government,” adding that the “age of artificial intelligence is here, and with it the hope of better lives for the American people.”
To that end, the group will coordinate AI-related federal efforts to “ensure continued US leadership in this field”; advise the White House on governmentwide AI research and development; define interagency AI goals; encourage new AI-related initiatives; and promote the development of AI both inside and outside the government’s sphere. The committee will also forge relationships between various government offices, the private sector, and academia.
Kratsios was keen to mention that several AI-related pilots are currently in the works, including efforts at General Services Administration, the NIH, the Department of Energy, and Veterans Affairs. Also, the President’s Management Agenda has asked for increased use of automation software, and investments in AI are expected for the 2019 federal budget, he said.
Importantly, Kratsios also talked about the potential for AI to create mass unemployment, saying job displacement is “inevitable.”
“But we can’t sit idle, hoping eventually the market will sort it out,” he explained. “We must do what Americans have always done: adapt,” adding that AI is an imperative because of the “potential benefits to American industry, to the American worker, and to the American people.”
The creation of this committee is a good, smart, and necessary move. AI is changing virtually everything we do, and especially the way we conduct business—if not now, most certainly in the near future. The feds are following suit, looking to modernize their technologies and processes, and even seeking to push the development of AI in specific directions. Nothing wrong with that—so long as it’s done with sound intentions and responsible foresight. The announcement also makes for good optics; the White House is showing it’s hip to artificial intelligence and its huge potential.
But the committee will have to be aware of the beast that is AI, and all that it entails. Dealing with technological unemployment, for example, will be daunting. With AI and robotics potentially disrupting millions of workers over the next several decades, the government is going to have to conduct a major rethink of its social security policies. In terms of historical precedent, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal—a reaction to the Great Depression—comes to mind.
What’s more, Kratsios’s flowery words need to be tempered against some of the other dark realities of AI. With fiascos such as the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal now setting an important precedent, it’s clear that big corporations don’t always have users’ and customers’ best interests in mind. This is where the government must be prepared step in, and forge policies to ensure that all information technologies, including AI, are designed before they launch to ensure safety, security, efficacy, and accessibility, while also ensuring users are free from egregious privacy breaches and damaging biases.
Eventually, AI will have to be regulated and subject to strict safety standards (despite the corporate world’s protestations), particularly when the scale of its power reaches the stage when AI can inflict tremendous harm—both to individuals and to society as a whole. We’re not at that point yet, but the new committee must be prepared to think about AI regulation and the upholding of institutional standards, among all the other ways to mitigate the negative aspects of AI.
When it comes to new technology, AI is a horse of a completely different color, and more than just a convenient prop for politicking.