The field of artificial intelligence has made remarkable progress in the past five years and is having real-world impact on people, institutions and culture. The ability of computer programs to perform sophisticated language- and image-processing tasks, core problems that have driven the field since its birth in the 1950s, has advanced significantly. Although the current state of AI technology is still far short of the field’s founding aspiration of recreating full human-like intelligence in machines, research and development teams are leveraging these advances and incorporating them into society-facing applications. For example, the use of AI techniques in healthcare is becoming a reality, and the brain sciences are both a beneficiary of and a contributor to AI advances. Old and new companies are investing money and attention to varying degrees to find ways to build on this progress and provide services that scale in unprecedented ways.
The field’s successes have led to an inflection point: It is now urgent to think seriously about the downsides and risks that the broad application of AI is revealing. The increasing capacity to automate decisions at scale is a double-edged sword; intentional deepfakes or simply unaccountable algorithms making mission-critical recommendations can result in people being misled, discriminated against, and even physically harmed. Algorithms trained on historical data are disposed to reinforce and even exacerbate existing biases and inequalities. Whereas AI research has traditionally been the purview of computer scientists and researchers studying cognitive processes, it has become clear that all areas of human inquiry, especially the social sciences, need to be included in a broader conversation about the future of the field. Minimizing the negative impacts on society and enhancing the positive requires more than one-shot technological solutions; keeping AI on track for positive outcomes relevant to society requires ongoing engagement and continual attention.
Looking ahead, a number of important steps need to be taken. Governments play a critical role in shaping the development and application of AI, and they have been rapidly adjusting to acknowledge the importance of the technology to science, economics, and the process of governing itself. But government institutions are still behind the curve, and sustained investment of time and resources will be needed to meet the challenges posed by rapidly evolving technology. In addition to regulating the most influential aspects of AI applications on society, governments need to look ahead to ensure the creation of informed communities. Incorporating understanding of AI concepts and implications into K-12 education is an example of a needed step to help prepare the next generation to live in and contribute to an equitable AI-infused world.
The AI research community itself has a critical role to play in this regard, learning how to share important trends and findings with the public in informative and actionable ways, free of hype and clear about the dangers and unintended consequences along with the opportunities and benefits. AI researchers should also recognize that complete autonomy is not the eventual goal for AI systems. Our strength as a species comes from our ability to work together and accomplish more than any of us could alone. AI needs to be incorporated into that community-wide system, with clear lines of communication between human and automated decision-makers. At the end of the day, the success of the field will be measured by how it has empowered all people, not by how efficiently machines devalue the very people we are trying to help.