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Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

A new report about artificial intelligence and its effects warns AI has reached a turning point and its negative effects can no longer be ignored.

The big picture: For all the sci-fi worries about ultra-intelligent machines or wide-scale job loss from automation — both of which would require artificial intelligence that is far more capable than what has been developed so far — the larger concern may be about what happens if AI doesn't work as intended.

Background: The AI100 project — which was launched by Eric Horvitz, who served as Microsoft's first chief scientific officer, and is hosted by the Stanford Institute on Human-Centered AI (HAI) — is meant to provide a longitudinal study of a technology that seems to be advancing by the day.

  • The new update published on Thursday — the second in a planned century of work — gathers input from a committee of experts to examine the state of AI between 2016 and 2021.
  • "It's effectively the IPCC for the AI community," says Toby Walsh, an AI expert at the University of New South Wales and a member of the project's standing committee.

What's happening: The panel found AI has exhibited remarkable progress over the past five years, especially in the area of natural language processing (NLP) — the ability of AI to analyze and generate human language.

  • The experts concluded that "to date, the economic significance of AI has been comparatively small," but the technology has advanced to the point where it is having a "real-world impact on people, institutions, and culture."

The catch: That means AI has reached a point where its downsides in the real world are becoming increasingly difficult to miss — and increasingly difficult to stop.

  • "All you have to do is open the newspaper, and you can see the real risks and threats to democratic principles, mental health and more," says Walsh.

Between the lines: The most immediate concern about AI then is what will happen if it is cemented in daily life before its kinks are fully worked out.

  • Companies have already begun employing OpenAI's massive GPT-3 NLP model to analyze customer data and produce content, but big text-generating systems have had persistent problems with encoded bias. A new paper released this week found the biggest models tend to frequently regurgitate falsehoods and misinformation.
  • Walsh points to Australia, which this week announced it will begin experimenting with allowing police in two of its largest states to use facial recognition technology to check if people in COVID-19 quarantine are remaining at home.
  • "It's already been implemented without any debate, even though we know that facial recognition carries serious risks of bias, especially for people of color," he says.

Context: Australia's move is an attempt to use AI to solve tricky social problems like the pandemic — what the panel calls "techno-solutionism" — rather than treating AI as it should be: one tool among many.

  • An algorithm used to determine who gets a bank loan or insurance might have what the panel calls "an aura of neutrality and impartiality" because it appears to be the product of a machine rather than a human being, but the decision AI makes "may be the result of biased historical decisions or even blatant discrimination."
  • "The racism, sexism, ageism in our society is going to be part of the AI systems we create," says Walsh.
  • Unless we realize that fact, AI could inadvertently launder existing social ills, hiding human biases inside the black box of an algorithm.

What to watch: Whether governments or companies listen to critics like UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, who earlier this week called for a moratorium on the sale and use of AI that can pose a risk to human rights — especially in law enforcement.

Go deeper

Updated Oct 21, 2021 - Axios Events

Watch: A conversation on socioeconomic mobility

On Thursday, October 21st, Axios race and justice reporter Russ Contreras and business reporter Hope King examined the long-standing barriers to achieving socioeconomic mobility that persist today and actions policymakers and private sector leaders can take to alleviate obstacles, featuring Democratic candidate for Maryland governor and former Robin Hood Foundation CEO Wes Moore and National Domestic Workers Alliance executive director Ai-jen Poo.

Wes Moore touched on the pathways to economic mobility, how companies can incentivize employees to stay in their jobs, and which industries were hit the hardest by COVID-19.

  • On how socioeconomic inequities were exacerbated by COVID-19: “What we saw from COVID was not simply an exacerbation of these inequities, it was also an exposure. I think when we’re thinking about what the recovery needs to look like and how we need to think about our capital and these new capital resources that are going to be placed inside of our communities, we need to think about them as investments that we know is going to create a measurable return on our larger societal benefit.”
  • On getting employees back to the workplace safely: “We can’t have a return to work strategy if we do not also have a child care strategy in the way we are going to be dealing with that.”

Ai-jen Poo highlighted the obstacles to socioeconomic mobility for domestic workers and how policy can assist in providing better economic opportunities for many.

  • On the socioeconomic barriers afflicting domestic workers: “It’s been a crisis of impossible choices for domestic workers, we’re talking about 2.2 million mostly women, majority women of color, who work inside of our homes. They work in isolated conditions and earn poverty wages without access to a safety net.”
  • On building mobility in the care sector: “I’m thinking specifically in the care sector, we have the opportunity to invest in care jobs becoming family sustaining jobs for the 21st century, a once in several generations opportunity to transform poverty wage work into good work with real economic mobility.”

Axios SVP of Events & Creative Strategy Kristin Burkhalter hosted a View from the Top segment with Capital One Executive Vice President & Head of External Affairs Andy Navarrete, who discussed data-driven insights on the current state of the American consumer.

  • “We think that some of the root causes of underemployment, most notably the lack of childcare, where we see a disproportionate impact on women workers relative to men and again disproportionate impact for communities of color, that these are areas that the policymakers who are debating what social infrastructure would look like can hopefully glean some insights that may help drive some of the solutions they ultimately adopt.”

Thank you Capital One for sponsoring this event.

Mike Allen, author of AM
2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Fauci fires back at Rand Paul for slam on tonight's "Axios on HBO"

Responding to charges by Sen. Rand Paul on Sunday's "Axios on HBO," NIAID director Anthony Fauci told "ABC This Week" that it's "molecularly impossible" for U.S.-funded bat virus research in China to have produced COVID-19.

Why it matters: The issue 0f Wuhan research was reignited on the right last week with a National Institutes of Health letter to Congress disclosing more about the research.

Manchin, Schumer huddle with Biden in Delaware to discuss spending bill

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (L) and Sen. Joe Manchin (R) at the U.S. Capitol on Nov. 13, 2014. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) will meet with President Biden and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Sunday morning in Delaware as Democrats look to reach an agreement on the massive spending measure.

Driving the news: Democrats are still negotiating what to keep in the bill and how to pay for it, with Biden saying on Thursday that the party does not have the votes to raise the corporate tax rate.