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Artificial intelligence can make America’s public sector great again

First, let’s define what AI looks like for federal government use.

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Senator Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., just drafted forward-looking legislation that aims to establish a select committee of experts to advise agencies across the government on the economic impact of federal artificial intelligence.

The move is an early step toward formalizing the exploration of AI in a government context. But it could ultimately contribute to jump-starting AI-focused programs that help stimulate the United States economy, benefit citizens, uphold data security and privacy, and eventually ensure America is successful during the initial introduction of this important technology to U.S. consumers.

The presence of legislation could also lend legitimacy to the prospect of near-term government investment in AI innovation — something that may even sway Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and others away from their belief that the impact of AI won’t be felt for years to come.

Indeed, other than a few economic impact and policy reports conducted by the Obama Administration — led by former U.S. Chief Data Scientist DJ Patil and other tech-minded government leaders — this is the first policy effort toward moving the U.S. public sector past acknowledging its significance, and toward fully embracing AI technology.

It’s a tall order, one that requires Sen. Cantwell and her colleagues in the Senate to define AI for the federal government, and focus on policies that govern very diverse applications of the technology.

Defining AI for federal government

As an emerging technology, the term “artificial intelligence” means different things to different people. That's why I believe it's essential for the U.S. government to take the first step in defining what AI means in legislation.

AI meant for U.S. government use should be defined as a network of complementary technologies built with the ability to autonomously conduct, support or manage public sector activity across disciplines. All AI-driven government technology should secure and advance the country’s interests. AI should not be formalized as a replacement or stopgap for standard government operations or personnel.

This is important because a central task of the committee will be to look at if AI has displaced more jobs than it has created — with this definition, they will be able to make an accurate assessment.

The importance of AI ethics and accountability

Should the select committee succeed in establishing a federal policy, this will provide a useful benchmark to the private sector on the way that AI should be built and deployed — hopefully adopting ethical standards from the start. This should include everything from the diversity of the people building the AI to the data it learns from. Adding value from the beginning, the technology and the people engaging with it need to be held accountable for outcomes of work. This will take collaboration and employee-citizen engagement.

AI brings unique diversity of both technology and personnel

Public-sector AI use offers an opportunity for agencies to better serve America’s diverse citizen population. AI could open up opportunities for citizens to work and engage with government processes and policies in a way that has never been possible before. New AI tools that include voice-activated processes could make areas of government accessible to people with learning, hearing and sight impairments that previously wouldn’t have had the opportunity in the past.

The myriad applications of AI-driven technology offers completely different benefits to departments throughout the government, from Homeland Security to the Office of Personnel Management to the Department of Transportation.

AI’s certain path

Once the government has a handle on AI and legislation is in place, it could eventually offer government agencies opportunities way beyond those in technology.

Filling talent and personnel gaps with technology that can perform and automate specific tasks, revamp citizen engagement through new communication portals and synthesize vital health, economic and public data securely. So, while the introduction of AI will inevitably lead to a situation where some jobs will be replaced by technology, it will also foster a new sector and create jobs in its wake.

For now, businesses, entrepreneurs, and developers around the world will continue to pioneer new AI-driven platforms, technologies and tools for use both in the home and the office — from live chat support software to voice-driven technology powering self-driving cars. The private sector is firmly driving the AI revolution — with Amazon, Apple, Facebook, IBM, Microsoft and other American companies leading the way. However, it is clear that there is definitely room for the public sector to complement this innovation and for the government to provide the guide rails.

Personally, I’ve spent my career developing AI and bot technology. My first bot brought me candy from a tech-company cafe. My last will hopefully help save the world to some extent. I think Sen. Cantwell’s initiative will set America’s public sector on a similarly ambitious path to bring AI that helps people into the fold — and elevate the U.S. as an important contributor to the technology’s global development.

Kriti Sharma is the vice president of bots and AI at Sage Group, a global integrated accounting, payroll and payment systems provider. She is the creator of Pegg, the world’s first accounting chatbot, with users in 135 countries. Sharma is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a Google Grace Hopper Scholar and a Government of India Young Leader in Science. She was recently named to Forbes‘ 30 Under 30 list. Reach her @sharma_kriti.

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