It's time for an intelligent conversation on artificial intelligence
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Artificial intelligence (AI) is by far the technological advance that will have the most significant and far-reaching consequences for how Americans live, work and play in the decades ahead. It will certainly change the world for the better and, unless we begin to act, assuredly for the worse, every aspect of our society.

Unfortunately, the country is not engaged in the thoughtful, long-term discussions and debates about how we must prepare to change and adapt to an entirely new era that few even understand.

Artificial intelligence once seemed like an ambitious goal, as distant as the far reaches of space. However, just as technological advances have put men on the moon and stretched our view far beyond the bounds of our solar system, so too have these advances put AI firmly in the realm of possibility — if not inevitability.


Considering the far-reaching implications of this technology, our failure to discuss it in a comprehensive way seems unfortunately short-sighted. The country is not engaged in the thoughtful, long-term discussions and debate about how we must prepare to change and adapt to an entirely new era.


Now is the time for everyone — policymakers, business leaders, labor leaders and educators — to engage in a sustained dialogue about the technology and transformations ahead. The philanthropic sector has a pivotal role to play in hosting these conversations, developing research and position papers on various options and engaging the public in helping to understand the opportunities and challenges that are inevitable during times of enormous change.

Silicon Valley Community Foundation, located in the epicenter of global technological innovation, understands the unique role and responsibility that philanthropy can play in bridging technological innovation and the philanthropic sector.

Living in a world with AI — computer codes that allow machines to learn and independently reach conclusions that are not preprogrammed — is now closer to science fact than science fiction. Just ask the citizens of Pittsburgh, Boston, Phoenix and other cities that are serving as laboratories for driverless cars. Ask patients who have had their cancer treatments guided by IBM’s Watson technology. Ask the industries where AI has already redefined which jobs are done by humans versus machines.

Then ask yourself, are we, as a country, prepared for the changes that lay ahead for our workforce?

Conventional wisdom once assumed this technological transformation would largely impact low- and medium-skill jobs. However, recent exponential success in AI shows that even the most skilled jobs, such as financial planners, investment advisors and doctors, will soon be working side-by-side with AI assistants.

How do we help students and workers prepare for a future where at least part of their job may no longer be available? It's often at this juncture where fear starts to set in. Those who are rightly concerned, wrongly suggest that AI is something that should be curtailed or stopped altogether. Such thinking suggests we can freeze the world in time — a position that is truly science fiction.

Instead of dodging the question and hoping technological progress will grind to a halt, the only feasible, productive option is to engage the debate. Those willing to join the discussion and shape the future of this technology will see that there aren’t just challenges, but also tremendous opportunities for how society can be immeasurably enhanced by AI and big data.

We owe it to future generations to ask the hard questions and seek the answers together about how the AI revolution can develop toward positive outcomes in all facets of society.

Silicon Valley Community Foundation has been pursuing this course for the last two years, engaging multiple cross-sector leaders in thoughtful conversations around AI and the future of our communities.

From our Innovation Conference, which features more than 800 foundations and individual philanthropists from around the globe, to our recent roundtable discussion in Washington, D.C. that included more than 25 leaders from the tech industry, business councils, education and government, we gather important voices to listen to each other’s fears and hopes about how to lead these complex issues.

Still, more of these discussions need to happen, and they need to happen fast. As one participant noted, it took 30-40 years after the start of the industrial revolution for government and society to adjust — through child labor laws, a two-day weekend and other means. The AI revolution simply won’t provide us with that kind of time.

Moving forward, it is absolutely essential for national and local leaders to engage the discussion of what AI will mean for communities across the country and what actions can be taken to maximize the benefits and minimize the disruption of these changes.

Philanthropy — through support from foundations like ours — must commit to learning and engaging in whatever spaces are needed to help diverse stakeholders understand and develop shared perspectives about what is underway, how to accurately communicate the changes it will portend, and help to develop options to respond.

At a time of divided government and a citizenry deeply concerned about the disappearance of meaningful work, foundations may represent one of the few institutions that can frame and engage on this issue. The time to have these difficult discussions is now. 

Emmett D. Carson, Ph.D., is the founding CEO of Silicon Valley Community Foundation, an international leader in the field of philanthropy. Before SVCF, Carson was CEO of The Minneapolis Foundation and, prior to that, oversaw the Ford Foundation’s U.S. and global grant-making program on philanthropy and the nonprofit sector. 

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.