Opinion: New York City must lead boldly on AI

The technology could be a huge economic boon to New York, but it also poses serious potential threats to our city.

The logo of OpenAI is seen on a mobile phone screen with The AI Revolution symbol in the background.

The logo of OpenAI is seen on a mobile phone screen with The AI Revolution symbol in the background. Idrees Abbas/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Artificial Intelligence has become the topic of intense policy discussion in capitals around the world. The Biden administration’s recent executive order puts the U.S. ahead of most other nations in preparing for this challenge.

But it’s at the local level – in cities – where AI’s impact is already being felt and where the explosive advances in this technology are set to most directly reshape our way of life. 

Nowhere is this more true than in New York City. We urgently need policies here locally to address this coming wave, both to capitalize on its positive potential and to mitigate its myriad threats.

AI is already everywhere in our city. Students are using AI for personalized tutoring in math, writing and more. Blind New Yorkers are using an AI-powered app to tell them when the pedestrian signal at an intersection says it's safe to cross. Thanks to AI, community board meetings now have remarkably accurate real-time subtitles.

The potential uses are almost limitless. AI could make it far easier for New Yorkers to apply for food stamps or file a noise complaint. It could help city government identify children at risk of lead poisoning and optimize everything from bus routes to tree trimming schedules. New tools could make it possible to more accurately track the spread of disease across the city in real time.

AI could be a huge economic boon to New York. Our city is home to the second-largest concentration of AI companies in the nation (including some of the biggest names in the field), and there are already an estimated 40,000 AI professionals here. This positions us to benefit from growth in the sector. It also gives us the responsibility to help shape it.

AI is not all upside. It poses serious potential threats to our city. Algorithms that determine access to credit, housing and other needs can bake in discriminatory biases. Generative AI tools like ChatGPT could be used to spread misinformation at unprecedented scale. In a city filled with ever more cameras, AI may shred our already precarious right to privacy. The intellectual property of countless writers and artists in New York City could be undermined by AI models that train on their work without consent.

As AI systems become more capable, there is a growing risk that they could be used by bad actors to shut down New York City’s critical infrastructure or target our residents with financial scams in extreme and novel ways. Many experts are warning of even more dire threats.

There are actions our city can and must take now to steer this technology in the right direction.

We can start with leading by example. New York City government can leverage its own considerable buying power, with annual spending on tech of at least $1 billion. We should declare that we will only purchase AI products which adhere to the highest ethical and safety standards – for example, by requiring that all systems we buy are trained only on fairly-licensed content and have undergone rigorous, transparent testing for bias and safety.

We can also act through local legislation in the City Council. The use of AI chatbots to impersonate humans without disclosure should be prohibited. Government use of facial recognition and other biometrics on city streets should be tightly controlled.

We also need dramatic action to pivot our education system for the coming disruptions in employment. Rather than blocking students from using ChatGPT and other similar tools (as some schools in NYC are still trying to do), we should concede that AI will be part of almost every career in the future. Let’s teach students how to use this technology to enhance their own work and creativity, while ensuring that they recognize these tools’ shortcomings. Most students graduating from New York City public schools have never had any content on computer science, let alone machine learning. This now must become part of the core curriculum.

Likewise, New York City’s system of workforce development training for adults needs a reboot.  We should pivot away from training for jobs likely to be rendered obsolete by AI, such as bookkeeping, call center agents and legal assistants. Instead, let's focus on training New Yorkers for more “AI-proof” careers, like nursing, electricians and social workers.

Let’s also ensure New York remains a hub for the development of beneficial AI. We could use tax incentives to support local startups using this technology to pursue goals important to our city, like curing disease, supporting children with learning challenges or tackling climate change.

We need action now to protect local elections. The New York City Campaign Finance Board should put in place rules that require all campaigns to clearly label image, video and audio content generated using AI tools. 

Finally, New York City can and should be a global leader in confronting the more serious threats posed by rapidly advancing AI. We should establish a Center for AI Safety – modeled on the highly successful New York Genome Center – to bring together an interdisciplinary group of researchers from our many world-class academic institutions. This new center would help us understand the largely opaque inner workings of advanced AI models, so that we can effectively prevent misuse of these systems and ensure they are aligned with our values.

From the invention of steamships to the rise of Zoom, emerging technology has constantly reshaped New York City. But we’ve never confronted a technological revolution as dramatic and fast moving as AI. This is not a case where we can simply sit back and watch.

There are decisions we need to make – now – that will determine whether we can steer AI toward the public good. Few places in the world are better positioned than New York City to take on this challenge. Few face higher stakes. New York City must lead boldly on AI.