Oct 29 2019

AI: The Upsides, the Risks and the Impact of Policy

Three experts discuss the present and future implications of artificial intelligence.

“Artificial Intelligence: How Will It Rock Your World?”

A trio of experts on a wide-ranging panel discussion with that title addressed that very question at Splunk’s .conf19 conference in Las Vegas. Here’s what they had to say about AI’s current impact, its future potential and how to separate reality from the hype.

How AI Can Help Across Industries

Adam Cohn, vice president for worldwide government affairs at Splunk, asked panelists to start by describing the most promising applications for AI in key sectors over the next few years.

Jinsook Han, digital and strategy lead for applied intelligence at Accenture, said one of the highest values of AI lies in its ability to improve relevance for stakeholders in different industries. “You want the brands and the companies to really know you,” she said. “If you are in the habit of always buying black hoodies all the time in size 12, you want the brands to know that that’s what you wear. You don’t want to be constantly being bombarded with size 18 red shirts.”

Dimitri Kusnezov, deputy undersecretary for AI and technology at the U.S. Department of Energy, said that potential applications of the technology are virtually limitless. “It opens the door for everyone to rethink problems we have faced before but didn’t know how to solve,” he said. “This is probably one of the most exciting time periods that you will be involved with. Probably, your kids will look back and say, ‘What were you doing when AI was emergent like this?’ It’s going to touch everything we do. We already feel it.”

Kusnezov acknowledged that some hyped AI solutions are essentially just repackaged versions of technology in existing areas, such as statistics or optimization. “Perhaps it’s not all cutting edge or world class,” he said. “There’s a lot to be done to differentiate the essence from the hype. But the hype is important for getting people jazzed up.”

The Real Risks of Artificial Intelligence

While sci-fi scenarios of rogue robots tend to dominate worries about AI in the popular imagination, the technology presents more realistic risks, noted Aaron Cooper, vice president for global policy at BSA.

Cooper pointed to two chief risks of AI. First, he said, there is a risk of AI tools introducing discrimination (or perpetuating existing biases) due to faulty designs or data inputs. Also, Cooper said, industries must prepare to transition workers into other roles as automation takes over tasks that have historically been performed by humans.

“As jobs change, people who didn’t use technology are all of a sudden going to need to interface with technology, and we need to get people trained to be able to do that,” he said.

Kusnezov pointed out that relatively small changes in data inputs can dramatically skew the accuracy of AI tools. For example, he said, the addition of a simple Post-it note can trick an algorithm into mistaking a stop sign for a yield sign. Also, he said, a change in two pixels on a radiology image (which would be invisible to a doctor) is enough for an AI program to mistake a malignant tumor for a benign one.

“Basically, you can get any outcome you want with an image that looks effectively identical,” Kusnezov said. “AI is fragile today. There are many ways — increasingly sophisticated — to fool it. You have to be careful.”

MORE FROM BIZTECH: Read how AI can help grow diversity in the workplace.

Public Policy May Shape AI Adoption

Cooper noted that the White House recently held a summit on AI, focused on both government adoption of the technology and workforce-related issues. “It’s an indication of the government being serious about trying to create a national strategy to both promote the development of AI and also the adoption of AI,” he said.

Cooper also noted that AI is not “one thing,” but rather an umbrella term to describe a wide array of use cases — many of which will require separate regulatory considerations. “Trying to regulate AI as AI doesn’t make a lot of sense,” he said. “But trying to think about the individual contexts in which AI is being deployed is what’s important.”

Kusnezov predicted that government will play a critical role in bringing together different stakeholders who need to collaborate on AI solutions. “With AI, the interesting thing is no one really owns all of it,” he said.

“It is necessarily a partnership. We talk with academics who have a lot of ideas but have no data and are stuck doing mundane things with open, publicly available data sets. We talk with startup companies that are developing new chips, really remarkable processors that are tailored to inference and different kinds of learning, but they have no data to exercise it and tune it.”

“There is a need to somehow bring these groups together,” Kusnezov added. “And I think there is a value and a role for government in some form as a trusted agent, as a convener, as something to bring together the different entities that you’re going to need to make any substantive progress. I have a hard time seeing that it will simply evolve by itself without a bit of help.”

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