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Article Article January 10th, 2017

Mapping the future: how governments can govern the rise of AI

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Governments lack the necessary global coordination and processes to prepare for an AI revolution

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Although many are nervous, AI offers huge opportunities to improve citizens' quality of life

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Governments need to balance privacy needs and the free flow of data not impeding developers

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Artificial Intelligence (AI): two words which are poised to revolutionise the way all of us go about our daily lives. From transport to education, medicine to defence, the rise of AI - and its future trajectory - is already asking fresh questions of leaders around the world. How will these changes be governed? What will be the impact on the workforce? How can governments, business and people best prepare? Helping answer these questions - and many more - are Cyrus Hodes and Nicolas Miailhe, co-founders of The AI Initiative, a project of The Future Society at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

Created in 2015, it has brought together students, researchers, alumni, faculty and experts from Harvard and beyond - all of whom are interested in understanding the consequences of AI - in order to help shape the global AI policy framework. It's a framework, according to Miailhe, which is already undergoing rapid change.

"Most governments - especially in the West - are engaging with AI," he says. "Governments in countries like the US, France and the UK are seeking to understand its implications, as well as the velocity and magnitude of the changes which are coming upon us. But at this stage we are lacking the mechanisms and processes that are needed to embrace, debate and oversee these changes at the global scale which is the right one. We lack the necessary global coordination and associated processes."

Helping fill this void is where The AI Initiative comes in.

Bracing for positive impact: The AI Initiative 

Since its launch 18 months ago, Hodes, Miailhe and their team have prioritised three areas of activity. Firstly, organising Harvard Forums, with high level panels on AI and policy, a global conference on AI and Defence with participants from top AI nations, and an annual summit of stakeholders and experts from the public and private sectors, academia and civil society to help interpret disruptive shifts in AI technology. Secondly, seeking to collaborate towards a global agreement on beneficial safeguards, transparency standards, design guidelines and confidence building measures. And thirdly, helping global policymakers from all branches of government and associated stakeholders (corporations and civil society) implement agreed upon rules and regulations at local and international levels.

It's quite a list - and one that is a testament to the sheer scale of the AI-powered changes heading our way. But what is perhaps less understood - at least among average citizens - is why and how this revolution has come about. After all, computers and, more recently, the internet are already intrinsic components of everyday life. So where has AI's rapid emergence sprung from? Miailhe agrees that some clarification would be useful. "The notion of 'AI' is very ambiguous," he admits. "The real fuel behind its rise is this new data ecology - in other words, unprecedented and amazing volumes of high resolution data."

It is these datasets, when combined with scalable super-computing on the cloud and improvements in machine learning and neurosciences, which has led to the huge advances of recent years. As a result, computers are now outperforming humans in tasks large and small, and last year a DeepMind programme for the first time defeated a leading Go player from South Korea - much to his and observers' astonishment.

While this is all tremendously exciting, there is also concern among many about the seemingly ever-rising power of computers - something Hodes readily acknowledges. "The way we view this is short, medium and long-term," he says. "Long-term is the most difficult to predict and certainly fears - whether rational or irrational - exist and come from very knowledgeable people working in AI." However, he is also keen to stress that AI also presents huge opportunities to improve citizens' quality of life and it is this message which needs to be transmitted in order to overcome any voices of scepticism.

"In the short and medium term, people's lives will be impacted by enhanced personalised services," he explains. "Take health care. There will be better diagnosis - predicting diseases and detecting them - and it will also transform how older people are taken care of. There will also be large changes in education. We are going to see a dramatic shift from the classroom, where teachers don't always know all their students, to an AI-empowered teacher/private mentor which will know you intrinsically, understanding your strengths, weaknesses and where to focus on. And then there is transportation. Pretty soon, people will no longer have to drive - they will be able to use a car without even having a driving licence and this will help ensure an easier life."

Miailhe is also in no doubt that AI can be a vehicle for hugely positive change, citing its potential impact around the planning and management of resources as a stand-out example. "It also applies to the case of management of public assets," he says. "Machine-learning algorithms based on vast datasets and supported by a robust computer infrastructure can see the rise of solutions that would enable local and state governments to manage urban systems much more effectively. It could be waste management, water, it could be transportation, or it could be street maintenance. It applies equally to national governments as well. The way that policymaking as a whole is planned, designed and delivered can also be enhanced by the rise of machine learning."

What's next? The role of government

The electric pace of developments in the AI sector makes predicting the next chapter far from straightforward. However, Miailhe believes that governments have a pivotal role to play in how to regulate the flow of these new datasets - striking a balance between privacy and the free flow of data not impeding developers will be a key priority. "There is a deep chasm between the US and Europe," he points out. "We in Europe are very privacy-oriented which means the data market is very heavily regulated. This can be a concern to the leading industrial actors willing to leverage the free flow of data which underpins the deep learning algorithms. By contrast, the US or China have weaker regulatory systems so the way government is going to answer the question of how we are going to regulate the free flow of data will be essential to its future."

Another role for policymakers is likely to be shaping the public debate, he adds. "One of the big paradoxes of what we call 'emerging technologies' is that as long as they are emerging and are perceived as such, we talk a lot about them. The moment they are deeply blended into our daily lives, we tend to talk a lot less about them. In many ways it is a question of public debate and narrative, and so government needs to orchestrate public debate around what really matters - such as possible tech unemployment or the coming revolution in lifelong training and education."

And Hodes goes on to say that governments also need to address the divide which exists between those working in technology and those in public policymaking positions. "There is this disconnect because those working in AI from a technical standpoint are usually quite wary of regulations that they may perceive could impede their work," he says. But despite such challenges, he believes governments' role in driving and underpinning hugely important digital advances should not be forgotten.

"Without government there would be no internet or GPS, and no human genome project," Miailhe points out. "All of these have been made possible by massive, long-term and patient government subsidy programmes. It's not that government is totally absent from digital at all. Actually we, as citizens, have benefited from taxpayer money going into these programmes over several decades."

With this in mind, it should perhaps come as no surprise that there is increasing and genuine interest in working on AI from the most advanced governments. "We are currently working with the OECD to help diagnose the rapid advances of the current rise of AI and associated socio-economic and public policy opportunities and challenges," says Hodes. "Governments and international organisations understand there are many avenues for them to engage in, for example by using AI to reform education and skill development for all adults. The workforce is going to change and the impact of AI will affect low, medium and high skilled jobs. Another is to start thinking about redistribution and reflect over pros and cons of the introduction of a universal basic income."

This message to "keep engaging" is what they both believe should be the headline priority for every policymakers of every stripe, adjusted somewhat to the needs of a particular audience. "How they engage is important," says Hodes. "So to engage President Trump to build on the work on AI of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy it may work better to highlight national security, as AI is a matter of strategic importance."

For Miailhe, though, the bottom line is that no government can afford to ignore what is rapidly emerging on the horizon. "The real question is about velocity and magnitude," he concludes. "We already know that AI is a big deal - and this means there is no way that government cannot engage as it offers a way for them to enhance the livelihoods of their citizens provided that we ensure that the quality of life is spread fairly across social and economic boundaries. No government official or elected representative can afford to turn their back on that any longer."


The Centre for Public Impact is investigating the way in which artificial intelligence (AI) can improve outcomes for citizens. 

Are you working in government and interested in how AI applies to your practice? Or are you are an AI practitioner who thinks your tools can have an application in government? If so, please get in touch. 



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