by Bob Beck and Ed Thomas

“Artificial intelligence (AI) has the potential to help address some of the biggest challenges that society faces,” states a line taken directly from a paper on AI published by the Executive Office of the President of the United States.

While the full report runs to 58 pages and includes no fewer than 23 recommendations, the title alone, “Preparing for the Future of Artificial Intelligence”, sums up the current White House administration’s standpoint on the topic. Clearly, whether or not AI has a role to play in the development of the global economy is no longer up for debate. Instead, the discussion has moved on to what that role will be, and how society will cope with the impact. It is therefore surprising that the topic has received little attention in the recent round of televised Presidential debates that have been watched with such scrutiny.

The bullish stance on AI adopted by the White House report is heartening, but unsurprising given the technology’s rise to prominence in recent years. Once the sole preserve of computer scientists and science fiction enthusiasts, discussion of the practical applications of AI is increasingly part of the mainstream; for example, just days prior to the release of the White House report, the venerable American TV program 60 Minutes aired a segment looking at the technology, describing it as being “on the verge of changing everything.”

Increasingly, AI is reshaping the way we live and work. AI platforms like IPsoft’s Amelia, a “digital employee” capable of solving problems like a human, are already being adopted by enterprises and public sector institutions alike. In just the last six months, Amelia has been “hired” to help process permit and licence applications for London’s Enfield Council, and to offer customer support for Swedish bank SEB.

By harnessing AI, organizations can significantly improve productivity, and studies suggest that widespread adoption will have a major impact on future economic growth. Accenture’s recent report Why Artificial Intelligence is the Future of Growth found that AI had the potential to increase labour productivity in the US by 35% over the next 20 years. According to Accenture, this rise “will not be driven by longer hours but by innovative technologies enabling people to make more efficient use of time.”

If that transformative potential is to be fully realised then it requires commitment from governments and businesses alike. Earlier this year, the head of the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA), the agency that advises the US president on economic policy, warned that “a much faster pace of innovation” was needed in areas such as robotics and AI “to really move the dial on productivity growth going forward”. Consequently, the White House is recommending that government spending on R&D in AI-related technologies should increase by as much as three times from its current level of just over $1bn per year.

There is widespread scepticism about the ability of government to deliver real innovation – President Obama has spoken of the diminishing of society’s “general commitment…to basic research,” as well as the belief among many heads of innovative technology companies that government intervention will only serve to slow down the pace of change – so the White House report is quick to reassure readers that “the private sector will be the main engine of progress on AI.” The new government investment will mainly be put into “research with long time horizons conducted for the sole purpose of furthering the scientific knowledge base”.

The US government may take an optimistic view on AI, but that does not mean it is blind to the risks and challenges arising from continued progress in the field. For example, there is the potential for greater automation to result in job losses and increased inequality. These concerns were recently highlighted by President Obama in an interview published in Wired magazine.  “If properly harnessed, [AI] can generate enormous prosperity and opportunity,” he said. “But it also has some downsides that we’re going to have to figure out.”

The White House report argues that public policy can attempt to mitigate risks of extensive disruption to employment patterns by, for example, “ensuring that workers are retrained and able to succeed in occupations that are complementary to, rather than competing with, automation”. In addition, it highlights the need for greater education on a broader basis, to ensure that the population as a whole, not just those working within the field, are ready for the AI-enabled future. “An AI-enabled world demands a data-literate citizenry that is able to read, use, interpret, and communicate about data, and participate in policy debates about matters affected by AI.”

Educating the public about AI need not be the sole preserve of government, of course – the private sector also has a role to play. One of the stated goals of the Partnership on AI to Benefit People and Society, a non-profit organization recently established by technology giants such as Amazon, Google, IBM and Microsoft was to “advance understanding and awareness of AI and its potential benefits and potential costs”. The key will be whether government and industry can work together successfully to achieve these shared goals. This can be challenging, but is not impossible. A public-private partnership will likely be needed to tackle the social, ethical and legal implications of AI and the new US President should plan to engage early and resource this effort with the government’s brightest minds.