WASHINGTON -- It can help trace missing children, but misidentifies people of color. It can help detect cancer, but may recommend the wrong cure. It can help track criminals, but could aid foreign enemies in targeting voters. It can improve efficiency, but perpetuate long-standing biases.
The "it" is artificial intelligence, a technology that teaches machines to recognize complex patterns and make decisions based on them, much like humans do. While the promised benefits of the technology are profound, the downsides could be damaging, even dangerous.
Last year police in New Delhi, for example, traced 2,930 missing children in four days by using an experimental facial recognition technology that identified them by examining a database of 45,000 kids living in shelters and homes. Yet a facial recognition tool developed by Amazon and tested by the American Civil Liberties Union in 2018 incorrectly identified 28 members of Congress as having been arrested for a crime, disproportionately picking out African American lawmakers, including civil rights icon John Lewis.
Significant advances in computers' ability to recognize visual patterns and human languages, including voice and text recognition, and to learn without supervision have brought machines closer to achieving cognitive tasks once reserved for humans. Vast quantities of data held privately and by governments are the necessary "food" that computers must digest to learn the new skills.
Lawmakers and regulators still grappling with the downsides of the internet and social media era -- such as loss of privacy, criminal hacking and data breaches -- are now trying to balance the promises and perils of artificial intelligence. Industry groups, lobbyists and unions are angling to shape the debate over regulations affecting technologies that could one day bring more job losses because of increased automation. Civil rights groups and some technologists are calling for greater oversight to prevent bias and discriminatory practices.
Determining the way forward is also complicated because artificial intelligence has emerged almost organically from existing technology and data, unhampered by restrictions on privacy and use, said Jason Schultz, a law professor at New York University who also oversees law and policy for NYU's AI Now Institute. "We are now trying to figure out whether the scaffolding we have for the internet era is sufficient for AI or do we need a whole new foundation," he said.
Northwell Health, New York state's largest health care provider, for example, uses Amazon's Echo voice-activated device to assist hospital patients with queries on everything from medications to music. Typical Echo devices store recordings of user requests on Amazon servers, but Northwell uses its own servers to comply with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, the landmark law that safeguards patient information.
"But is that enough or do we need new regulations?" Schulz asked.
Members of Congress are waking up to the potential dangers of widespread use of AI technologies. They have drafted bills that would not only require more transparency and accountability over these automated systems, but also allow users to withhold certain information from the large data sets that drive artificial intelligence.
"It's a fundamental way in which decisions are made now -- algorithms and computers," said Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who is co-sponsoring a bill dubbed the Algorithmic Accountability Act, introduced in April. "And it seems to me that there's not much transparency, not much disclosure, and that's what we sought to do in our bill."