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It's not just coming - it's here. Artificial intelligence (AI), long the stuff of science fiction fantasy, is now taking root in systems and societies, countries and continents, around the world. And we're all going to be affected.
So that sounds a little scary. Certainly, the type of transformational change that AI is poised to deliver is bound to be unsettling for many. Until recently, the idea of driverless cars, to take one example from many, sounds more like something you'd see in a Hollywood blockbuster than on a road near you. But soon - very soon - they will be commonplace.
And what about the world of work? With automation already beginning to render many jobs obsolete, it's human nature to wonder whether your chosen career path will continue to exist in the years and decades to come. This is why we believe the rise of AI will likely be the single biggest technological shift in our lifetime - it doesn't get much bigger.
But what actually is “AI”? And why do we at the Centre for Public Impact believe there is an urgent need to consider the benefits and risks concerning its use in government?
Let's start with a simple explanation about what AI actually is. In essence, it is software that enhances and automates the knowledge-based work done by humans. So, in practical terms, this means that you need not rely on a doctor to make your cancer prognosis - AI can now surpass human pathologists in predicting survival times for certain kinds of tumours. Another example is transport: the days of the long-distance trucker may well be numbered, as driverless lorries are expected to be on our roads within a decade. With 1.7 million truckers in the US alone, the scale of the potential disruption is clear.
Interestingly, though, one area which hasn't received much - if any - analysis is the impact of AI on government itself. Now this is surprising for a number of reasons.
There is no doubt that AI has the potential to enable governments to be dramatically more effective. From processing welfare claims efficiently to identifying children in troubled families before they are harmed, there are many challenges that would benefit from the injection of AI. And similarly, the public sector is not exactly short of data - which is itself the fuel on which AI depends. Higher-quality, richer datasets lead to better decisions - these are now achievable thanks to AI and to the fact we are now no longer constrained by the data-absorption capacity of humans.
Risk versus reward
It is not, however, a foregone conclusion that governments will harness successfully the potential gains from AI. Partly this is rooted in the risk-averse nature of policymakers in governments around the world. The private sector is freer than governments to take the risk of trying something new. In business, you take a risk and the worst that happens is your enterprise takes a hit. But for government, which oversees emergency services like the fire department or ambulance service, failure is not an option.
There is also the risk that comes from doing nothing, especially if citizens see the private sector using AI to great effect. Governments' refusal to deploy AI might have a negative impact on their legitimacy if the quality of service they provide is far below what is technically possible.
Another risk is for government to get AI wrong. What if policymakers do use AI, but they do so in ways that perpetuate existing biases and inequities, or are seen as abuses of government power? Bear in mind that we humans invest AI with our values but also with our biases. If we are not careful, we will end up constructing a system which is enormously powerful but also perpetuates existing problems.
Accountability is another issue to consider. Right now, the accountability mechanisms we have in place rest ultimately on the fact that we can punish a human when they are at fault. We can put a grossly negligent doctor in jail, for example. But we cannot do that with an algorithm.
We believe that this is no time to press pause. Government should instead start using AI immediately in order to build up its expertise and experience, particularly in policy areas where the risks to citizens are limited. The bottom line, though, is that AI heralds an enormous opportunity for governments to do good and be good. Sure, there are uncertainties aplenty, but no progress is possible without an element of risk.
And remember, public servants didn't enter government service for the money. They entered because they wanted to improve the lives of their fellow citizens and strengthen vital public services. AI can help them do both - that's something we don't need an algorithm to tell us.
The Centre for Public Impact is investigating the way in which artificial intelligence 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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