Rethink government with AI

Helen Margetts and Cosmina Dorobantu at Nature: “People produce more than 2.5 quintillion bytes of data each day. Businesses are harnessing these riches using artificial intelligence (AI) to add trillions of dollars in value to goods and services each year. Amazon dispatches items it anticipates customers will buy to regional hubs before they are purchased. Thanks to the vast extractive might of Google and Facebook, every bakery and bicycle shop is the beneficiary of personalized targeted advertising.

But governments have been slow to apply AI to hone their policies and services. The reams of data that governments collect about citizens could, in theory, be used to tailor education to the needs of each child or to fit health care to the genetics and lifestyle of each patient. They could help to predict and prevent traffic deaths, street crime or the necessity of taking children into care. Huge costs of floods, disease outbreaks and financial crises could be alleviated using state-of-the-art modelling. All of these services could become cheaper and more effective.

This dream seems rather distant. Governments have long struggled with much simpler technologies. Flagship policies that rely on information technology (IT) regularly flounder. The Affordable Care Act of former US president Barack Obama nearly crumbled in 2013 when, the website enabling Americans to enrol in health insurance plans, kept crashing. Universal Credit, the biggest reform to the UK welfare state since the 1940s, is widely regarded as a disaster because of its failure to pay claimants properly. It has also wasted £837 million (US$1.1 billion) on developing one component of its digital system that was swiftly decommissioned. Canada’s Phoenix pay system, introduced in 2016 to overhaul the federal government’s payroll process, has remunerated 62% of employees incorrectly in each fiscal year since its launch. And My Health Record, Australia’s digital health-records system, saw more than 2.5 million people opt out by the end of January this year over privacy, security and efficacy concerns — roughly 1 in 10 of those who were eligible.

Such failures matter. Technological innovation is essential for the state to maintain its position of authority in a data-intensive world. The digital realm is where citizens live and work, shop and play, meet and fight. Prices for goods are increasingly set by software. Work is mediated through online platforms such as Uber and Deliveroo. Voters receive targeted information — and disinformation — through social media.

Thus the core tasks of governments, such as enforcing regulation, setting employment rights and ensuring fair elections require an understanding of data and algorithms. Here we highlight the main priorities, drawn from our experience of working with policymakers at The Alan Turing Institute in London….(More)”.