‘What do we want out of artificial intelligence? And, how do we get there?’

By Khalida Sarwari

The rapid pace of artificial intelligence development and the impact it has had on our lives has been simultaneously ‘amazing’ and ‘terrifying,’ said Shawn Ramirez, the head of data science and engineering at Insight Data Science in Seattle.

From the cars that we drive to the products and systems that we use daily, intelligent systems have infiltrated every corner of our lives, and much of it has occurred just in the last five years, Ramirez told leaders in business, government, and higher education who gathered at Northeastern’s Seattle campus this week.

“It’s easy to feel overwhelmed in terms of how AI has changed and what it impacts in our lives,” she told the audience.

The conference was the first of a two-day event that followed on the heels of a survey conducted by Northeastern and Gallup which revealed an international cross-section of opinions about artificial intelligence as economies around the world undergo the transformative move to automation.

The poll found that the majority of people in the U.S, Canada, and the U.K. think that artificial intelligence will improve their lives, but also believe that higher education, government, and employers are not doing enough to improve their skills.

Compared to 34 percent of respondents in the U.K. and 37 percent of those polled in Canada, only 17 percent of American respondents reported feeling worried about losing their jobs as a result of artificial intelligence. But experts say they should be more concerned.

“There will actually be an incredible, substantive, measurable impact on individuals in all of these countries, and definitely in the U.S.,” said Stephanie Marken, the executive director of education research at Gallup.

While the poll results showed overwhelming support for lifelong learning opportunities, it also revealed pessimism toward higher education. Most graduates in all three countries reported feeling unprepared to work with artificial intelligence, and only three percent of U.S. respondents said they believe American universities adequately prepare graduates for jobs of the future.

At this critical moment, Northeastern has launched a campus in Vancouver that will offer degree programs to prepare students for careers in the age of artificial intelligence, including pathways that enable those with no high-tech background to pursue computing careers.

Northeastern’s arrival in British Columbia comes as government and industry leaders join with employees to grapple with the new realities of the automation age. More than 85 percent of Canadian survey respondents view the emergence of artificial intelligence as a threat to jobs over the next decade.

The Vancouver campus will collaborate with the campus in Toronto to develop a base of operations across Canada. The newest of the university’s locations will also join with neighboring campuses in Seattle and San Francisco/Silicon Valley as a regional high-tech network that contributes to the nascent Cascadia Innovation Corridor, which aims to develop a global innovation ecosystem in the Pacific Northwest.

As artificial intelligence rapidly advances, potentially making our personal and professional lives easier, and helping to eradicate diseases and social issues, questions abound over how to safeguard human values such as privacy and autonomy as we adopt these systems.

A panel discussion with Ronald Sandler, a philosophy professor who directs theEthics Institute at Northeastern, veered into a philosophical probe of this issue:What do we want out of artificial intelligence? And, how do we get there?

“It’s not just privacy, algorithmic bias, automated decision-making processes,” said Sandler. “It’s important to realize it’s not just an ethical issue. It’s not just one technology. It’s not just one industry. It is a big issue, right? So the question is: if we have this powerful new broad technological platform, and we want it to bring about a social good, broadly construed, how do we get to that from here given all the problems that we have?”

Northeastern’s Seattle Campus convenes leaders in business, government, and academia to discuss the impact of artificial intelligence


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