Depending on who you ask, Artificial Intelligence is either the harbinger of doom or a revolutionary tool capable of changing our lives for the better.

For policymakers, it’s somewhere in between. January 2019 saw the first instalment of the MIT AI Policy Congress; an event that brought together government representatives including two former chiefs of staff, former cabinet secretaries, homeland security and defense policy chiefs, industry and civil society leaders with leading AI scientists and researchers.

Their purpose? To tackle one of the most difficult topics surrounding the development of artificial intelligence: regulation.

So far, the discussion on AI has largely been dominated either by promises of increased productivity or concerns surrounding job security. In the MIT AI Policy Congress, the conversation centered around harnessing the opportunities created by AI – including medicine, transportation, national security and workforce efficiency – yet did not hesitate to confront the risks this new technology presents: the potential for social bias, the need for transparency and the problematic areas that could stall AI innovation across the globe.

Adding to the challenge is that AI is still an emerging technology; it is a concept that has fast-evolved but remains in its infancy. As such, the nature and extent of the benefits and risks remain somewhat uncertain, so decisions about how to balance innovation against risk at this stage must be made with incomplete information. Since the applications of AI are so widespread and differ industry to industry – for example, autonomous vehicles to AI in med-tech – one key idea that surfaced from the MIT event is that policymaking could unfold differently depending on the specific sector utilising the technology.

“The policy world consists of very different bodies of law,” said R. David Edelman, director of the Project on Technology, the Economy, and National Security (TENS) at the MIT Internet Policy Research Initiative (IPRI).

“Policymakers will need to ask themselves to what extent general regulations are meaningful, or if AI policy issues are best addressed in more specific ways — whether in medicine, criminal justice, or transportation, “ he said.

At the heart of our AI governance challenge is the need to strike a balance between pushing forward with the development of the technology to reap the rewards it has to offer and ensuring the interests of individuals are protected and the risks to the rights of citizens are minimised. Now, as we move closer towards the fourth industrial revolution, lawmakers and law enforcement bodies must continue to collaborate with data scientists and researchers to ensure the impact of artificial intelligence serves to benefit society.

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