The past year has tested us. Exposing deep divides and longstanding systemic challenges, 2020 forced us to recognize the interconnectedness of our communities, as well as the importance of collaboration and innovation. With 10.7 million Americans out of work, 50 million experiencing food insecurity and more than 400,000 across our nation lost to COVID-19, we know “building back better” requires immediate and decisive action. Our experience has demonstrated that AI and data science can help, but we need federal leadership to realize these possibilities. We need revitalized AI and data science policy on the agenda in the first hundred days.
AI and data science have shown enormous potential in addressing the world’s most intractable problems – from climate to healthcare to inequality – but the tools currently rest overwhelmingly in the hands of technologists. The new administration has the opportunity to develop a new infrastructure to collectively shape these tools in ways that bring together research halls, boardrooms, and communities activated around finding solutions.
The recent White House announcement of the National Artificial Intelligence Initiative Office, charged with implementing national AI strategy and coordinating cross-sector efforts is a promising start, but the U.S. lags behind many industrialized countries in R&D investment as well as in government support for AI application and capacity building, especially as it applies to the social sector. President Biden has outlined a robust policy objective, committing $300 billion in R&D and tech investment, projected to create upwards of three million jobs. We must ensure that those jobs have presence in (and mandates for) the social sector, to ensure that all Americans benefit from technological advancements, especially in this time of immense need.
This pandemic has exposed significant inequities: food insecurity, homelessness, and a widening digital divide, to name a few. Preexisting socio-economic indicators can often identify those more likely to face additional hardship in times of crisis, but predictive algorithms and data mapping can provide us with precise information to trigger right-size interventions to avoid the tipping point and ensure the health and wellbeing of communities. In the case of food insecurity, such technology could help to deliver against existing need, and support food banks and governments in preparing for future demand.
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Before COVID-19, food insecurity reportedly affected 35 million Americans, a number may recently have climbed as high as 50 million. AI and science have been deployed to combat hunger across the U.S. – not just through campaigns to raise awareness or operations to ensure the cleanliness of distribution facilities and preparation of prepackaged holiday meals – but also through the use of predictive models around food insecurity, and to develop resource-effective bus routes to enable no-contact deliveries for families in need. Further upstream, AI is informing how farmers grow food, providing early insight into weather patterns, plant disease, and even market demand to improve farm yield and decrease waste.
These tools, used indiscriminately, are not without their problems. Standards, practices, and investment in national-level policy will need to be government-led to ensure equitable outcomes. Widespread awareness and commitment to the principles of inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility (IDEA) will ensure these tools solve existing problems, rather than create new ones.
As the new administration affirms its commitment to “build back better,” our country is presented with a unique moment of opportunity, where we are both equipped with exceptional capabilities and confronted by dire need. In his inaugural address, President Biden challenged us to lead “not by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.” Our investment in the inclusive development and deployment of powerful AI and technology could profoundly impact the lives of countless Americans. Our failure to act, regrettably, could do the same. Only by steering such extraordinary tools for the common good and harnessing artificial intelligence for real impact can we set an example – and amplify the very best of our shared humanity.
Vilas Dhar is President of the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation, a philanthropy advancing artificial intelligence (AI) and data solutions to create a thriving, equitable, and sustainable future for all. Mr. Dhar also serves as a Trustee of the Christensen Fund and is a Senior Fellow at the Berggruen Institute. He holds a J.D. from NYU School of Law, a Master’s in Public Administration from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and dual Bachelor’s degrees in Biomedical Engineering and Computer Science from the University of Illinois.