This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. It aims to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge. Opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.
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By Luciano Floridi and Anna C. Nobre, University of Oxford
Sometimes we forget that life without good politics, reliable science and robust technology soon becomes “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”, to borrow the phrase from Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. The COVID-19 crisis has tragically reminded us that nature can be merciless. Only human ingenuity and good will can improve and safeguard the living standards of billions of people. Today, much of this ingenuity is busy delivering an epochal revolution: the transformation of an exclusively analogue world into one which is also increasingly digital. The effects are already widespread: this is the first pandemic when a new habitat, the infosphere, has helped overcome the dangers of the biosphere. We have been living “onlife” (both online and offline) for some time, but the pandemic has made the onlife experience a reality of no return.
The development of Artificial Intelligence (AI) is an important factor in this epochal revolution. AI can be interpreted as the engineering of artefacts that can do things that would require intelligence if we were to do them. With a classic example, our mobile phone can beat almost anyone at chess, while being as intelligent as a toaster. In other words, AI is the unprecedented divorce between the ability to solve problems successfully in view of a goal and any need to be intelligent in doing so. This successful divorce has become possible only in recent years, thanks to skyrocketing quantities of data, very sophisticated statistical tools, gigantic computational power, and the transformation of our habitats into increasingly AI-friendly places. The more we live in the infosphere and onlife, the more we share our everyday realities with engineered forms of agency, and the more AI can deal with an increasing number of problems and tasks. The limit of AI is not the sky, but human ingenuity.
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From this historical and ecological perspective, AI is an amazing technology that can be a powerful force for good, in two main ways. It can help us know, understand and foresee more and better not only the current pandemic, but also the next, and indeed other global challenges which are becoming so pressing, especially climate change, social injustice, and global poverty. AI’s successful management of data and processes can accelerate the virtuous circle between more information, better science, and improved policies. Yet, knowledge is power only when translated into action. Here too, AI can be a remarkable force for good, helping us improve the world — and not just our interpretation of it. The pandemic has reminded us that we face problems that are complex, systemic, and global. We cannot solve them individually. We need to co-ordinate (we do not get in each other’s way), collaborate (we each do our part) and co-operate (we work together) more, better and internationally. AI can enable us to deliver these 3Cs more efficiently (more results with fewer resources), efficaciously (better results), and innovatively (new results).
There is a “but”: human ingenuity without good will can be dangerous. If AI is not controlled and steered ethically and sustainably, it can exacerbate social problems, from bias to discrimination; erode human autonomy and responsibility; and magnify past problems, from the unfair allocation of wealth to the development of a culture of mere distraction, that of “panem et digital circenses”. AI risks turning from being part of the solution to being part of the problem. This is why initiatives such as the OECD Principles on Artificial Intelligence and, ultimately, good international regulations are essential to ensure AI remains a powerful force for good.
Also on the Forum Network: Principles in Practice: Establishing a governance framework for beneficial Autonomous and Intelligent Systems by Konstantinos Karachalios, Managing Director, IEEE Standards Association
AI for social good is part of a new marriage, between the Green of our habitats — natural, synthetic, and artificial, from the biosphere to the infosphere, from urban environments to economic, social, and political circumstances — and the Blue of our digital technologies, from mobile phones to social platforms, from the Internet of Things to Big Data, from AI to future quantum computing. The marriage between the Green and the Blue, with its advantages, counterbalances the divorce between Agency and Intelligence, with its risks. It is our responsibility to design and manage both successfully. The pandemic has made clear that what is at stake is not so much digital innovation, as the good governance of the digital. Technologies increase and improve daily. However, to save our planet and ourselves — also from ourselves — we can and must use them much better; just think of the spread of COVID-19-related disinformation on social media, or the ineffectiveness of the so-called coronavirus apps. The pandemic has been the dress rehearsal of what should be the human project for the twenty-first century, a strong and fruitful marriage between the Green and the Blue. We can make it a success together.
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