The ability of machines to solve complex problems and make real-world decisions, also known as artificial intelligence, is going to be incredibly good for humanity. As a recent White House report lays out, AI can make transport systems more efficient, safer, and cleaner. It can bring make buildings smart, so they save energy and cut carbon emissions. It can save lives in hospitals by predicting medical complications. And, through ideas like AI-based “digital tutors,” it can potentially increase the skills and incomes of non-college educated workers.
But then come the possible downsides. Automation is likely to eliminate many jobs, from warehouse pickers to secretaries, affecting people on lower-wages the most. That could exacerbate income inequality and widen the gap between less- and more-educated workers. We might create systems we don’t fully understand, that lack transparency and accountability. And, ultimately, AI-based machines might become more intelligent than humans, and swallow us into the “singularity.”
Though it’s a dry sort of government document, the report is actually excellent in summarizing the field in clear, understandable terms. And, crucially, it puts AI in a social context–something that other coverage fails to do. Above all, it makes the case for beefing up the government’s ability to research and understand AI, for the public to become more literate about AI (that means journalists as well), and for the government to use AI itself. Currently, some federal agencies are spending a lot on research (like the National Institutes of Health) while others would like to but can’t (the Department of Labor, which might invest in digital tutors, has an entire R&D budget of only $14 million).
In promoting the report recently, President Obama focused on AI’s impact on work. He noted for example that autonomous vehicles could eliminate employment in some of our most job-rich industries: “A huge percentage of the American population makes its living, and often a pretty good living, driving,” he said in Pittsburgh. “So understandably people are concerned about what this is going to mean.”
Obama says we should even begin to think about ideas like a basic income, which would put a floor under people most affected by AI. “We are going to have to have a societal conversation about how we manage this,” he told Wired. “How are we training and ensuring the economy is inclusive if, in fact, we are producing more than ever, but more and more of it is going to a small group at the top? How do we make sure that folks have a living income?”