7 takeaways from the White House report on AI

The White House released its much anticipated document last May, entitled “Preparing for the Future of Artificial Intelligence.” Sent from the Office of the President and the National Science and Technology Council Committee on Technology (or NSTC), the report is 58 pages of research, documentation, and recommendations on how the United States government plans to respond to artificial intelligence (AI) moving forward.

The report was developed by the NSTC’s Subcommittee on Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence “which was chartered in May 2016 to foster interagency coordination, to provide technical and policy advice on topics related to AI, and to monitor the development of AI technologies across industry, the research community, and the Federal Government,” according to the report.

The NSTC hosted five public workshops, as well as putting out a public Request for Information. The information drawn from those six sources informed the eventual recommendations of the committee. As it says in the report, there’s an “attempt to reach General AI by expanding Narrow AI solutions have made little headway over many decades of research.”

The 23 official recommendations can be boiled down into seven broad mandates, which serves as a good guide for anyone in the field. These seven declarations will have a noticeable impact on the future of technology in the US, and everyone in the industry should be familiar with them, in order to take best advantage of the new opportunities they will open (and the doors they may close).

1. AI should be used for public good

AI has already begun providing major dividends to the public in fields such as healthcare, transportation, criminal justice, and the economy.

One concrete example is AI-enabled traffic management, which can reduce wait times and unnecessary carbon emissions by as much as 25%. In animal welfare and research circles, animal migration tracking is being improved by analyzing photographs that tourists post to social media. In the future, we hope to see vast improvement of the criminal justice system, including crime reporting and bail sentencing.

So what are the concrete steps we need to take, moving forward? The government recommends that both private and public institutes invest in research to see how their specific business or industry would benefit from AI. They also plan to create an open-source AI training database, to ensure everyone has access to the technology necessary to embark on this new phase.

2. Government should embrace AI

Using AI is faster and more efficient, and every agency should be on board. DARPA has an educational system to create a digital tutor for Navy recruits, and the recommendation is for that tutor to be adapted for every agency.

In tandem with that, the government has announced more federal support for AI research. The private sector will be the main engine, but government needs to support both underinvested basic research, and the long-term research in which the private sector is notoriously uninterested.

3. Automated cars and unmanned aircraft need regulation

New regulations are needed for two reasons: to protect the public, and to ensure fairness in economic competition.

The cases of automated vehicles (such as self-driving cars) and unmanned aircraft (drones) are prime examples of areas which require immediate regulations. The Safety Standards that exist for automobiles need to be updated to include their automated cousins, and regional and federal laws need to change their wording to allow for new permutations. Also, The U.S. Government should invest in developing and implementing an advanced and automated air traffic management system.

Creating appropriate regulations means finding senior people in the industry to shape and create those new laws. The government will develop a federal workforce with diverse perspectives in order to ensure fairness.

4. No child left behind

Most people have already heard Obama’s speech about empowering the next generation: this recommendation states that all American students, from kindergarten through high school, will — as the report says — “learn computer science and be equipped with the computational thinking skills they need in a technology driven world.”

America will build and sustain a researcher workforce, including computer scientists, statisticians, database and software programmers, curators, librarians, and archivists with specialization in data science.

It isn’t only about teaching AI, however; it’s also about teaching safe AI. To that end, schools and universities will include ethics, and related topics in security, privacy, and safety, as an integral part of curricula on AI, machine learning, computer science, and data science.

5. Use AI to supplement, not supplant, human workers

“A 2015 study of robots in 17 countries found that they added an estimated 0.4% to those countries’ annual GDP growth between 1993 and 2007,” according to the report. However, there is also the threat that AI will replace the workforce — generally speaking, automation threatens lower-wage jobs, potentially increasing the wage gap. While the report does not yet have a suggestion for how to fix this problem, they do firmly declare that a solution needs to be found, and the recommendation is to study the problem in earnest and search for its solution.

That being said, there is ample evidence that AI is used to its best effect when it works in tandem with human workers, rather than by replacing them. In one recent study, when trying to determine whether lymph node cells contained cancer, “an AI-based approach had a 7.5% error rate, where a human pathologist had a 3.5% error rate; a combined approach, using both AI and human input, lowered the error rate to 0.5%,” according to the report. We are stronger, it seems, together.

6. Eliminate bias from data, or don’t use it at all

The use of data needs to be combined with justice, fairness, and accountability. AI are trained in a closed world, but then they are moved to an open world, and that change needs to be anticipated and planned for.

Take, for instance, the criminal justice system, where machine learning can take huge strides for good. “The biggest concerns with Big Data are the lack of data, and the lack of quality data,” according to the report. If data is incomplete or biased, AI can actually exacerbate problems, rather than fix them. No one wants a machine deciding if they’re a flight risk without the information to make that an informed decision.

Another area where bias can be a huge problem is something like job application screening. In the UK they have made it illegal to deny someone a job based on a decision made by a computer; in the US, they have instead taken the route that the computer had better know what it’s on about.

7. Think safe, think global

This may be one of the most important lines in the entire document: Long-term concerns about super-intelligent General AI should have little impact on current policy.

This recommendation is all about allowing trade secrets without allowing secrecy. The report suggests that if competition drives commercial labs towards increased secrecy, it may become more difficult to monitor progress and ensure ethical standards are being met. To that end, they suggest defining milestones and logging if companies have surpassed them as a way to keep an eye on progress without divulging secrets.

The government outlines a plan to monitor other countries. They will develop a government-wide strategy on international engagement related to AI, and develop a list of AI topical areas that need international engagement and monitoring. Japan, Korea, Germany, Poland, the UK, and Italy are specifically listed as countries with which they will partner to this end.

The most important takeaways for companies to be aware of are potential financing buckets for organizations which support ethics in AI and AI training; the creation of those public milestones with which companies will no doubt need to engage; and new accountability standards for the creators of AI. Overall, the report has a hopeful tone, and the future seems clear. AI is here to stay, and the United States is embracing it with enthusiasm, tempered only mildly with caution.

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