Opinion: A real plan for Empire AI

New York’s AI initiative needs strong labor standards and ethical guardrails.

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Since Gov. Kathy Hochul proposed Empire AI in her State of the State address, there’s been a lot of speculation on what an AI consortium can bring to New York. While it is true that an AI consortium can position New York to be a leader in AI, our ability to reap those benefits will be determined by how well we plan and design the program to meet the needs of universities and New Yorkers. That’s why we’ve spent the past two months speaking to advocates, universities, government agencies, and others to understand the promise of this program and develop the necessary structure to make this consortium successful.

If New York is going to be a leader in the AI industry, Empire AI must be used to advance ethical and public interest uses of AI and prepare the state for economic and workforce disruptions. 

Our version of Empire AI will create the structure and guardrails necessary to allow this public-private partnership to capitalize on the promise of AI research and development while creating a clear system of accountability and ensuring that this program serves the public good. 

First, it establishes a Council on Artificial Intelligence Research and Development with a mandate to study the impact of AI on labor, underprivileged communities, income inequality, and the tech industry. It also includes strict labor requirements for all related construction, houses the Institute at the University of Buffalo, a state-owned public research institution, and creates an executive director position, with a requirement that the chosen candidate have expertise in data science, education or labor discipline and experience fostering large-scale partnership ecosystems. Crucially, it prohibits the council from approving any AI projects that are malicious, violent, harmful, unlawful, biased, discriminatory, or unsafe, or that can lead to infringement of civil liberties, and it requires that at least two members of the council have expertise in ethics.

By building public accountability into the structure of the governing body itself and emphasizing a focus on communities and industries most impacted by AI and the digital divide, we are ensuring that this program, and the public resources dedicated to it, will benefit all. 

Through the growing digital divide, we have seen what can happen when technology is guided by the private sector. For instance, research and development projects without immediate return on investment and with long term benefits to society, like research in healthcare, the environment and education, may not win industry funding. New opportunities for collaboration that foster cross-disciplinary work and add new perspectives to research problems may be difficult to coordinate under other programs. The government’s participation in developing our state’s technology infrastructure to support the development of AI is therefore critical to ensuring that the benefits of this investment flow to all corners of society. 

Empire AI must address the disruptive effects of technology on our society that we can observe today. AI or AI-related technologies have been replacing low wage workers doing mundane and repetitive tasks for years. Today, many employers are tempted to replace their skilled and/or creative workers with advanced AI.

That’s why our version of Empire AI incorporates a workforce development component that not only connects workers with resources to build their skills but also informs them that their job may be at risk. AI education should be available to all, since even those who are not technology “power users” may be subject to AI decision-making, such as in important hiring or financial decisions, or exposed to AI-generated content, from memes and unusually stylish popes to malicious election deepfakes. Increased education around AI can help build awareness around the prevalence of AI and help people make informed judgments when impacted by the technology.

Empire AI must be forward-looking, which is why our version of Empire AI requires the development of programs for K-12 institutions and students. To ignite the creativity of the next cohort of technologists and ensure they are equipped for the AI-dominated world they will inherit, Empire AI should at least include teacher training on best practices for AI education and provide opportunities for students to engage in hands-on learning.

The collective excitement around AI is palpable, for good reason. As a state with incredible diversity, innovative institutions, manufacturing expertise and a vibrant business environment linking funders and builders, New York is in an enviable position to build collaboration around and benefit from this technology.

But if we want Empire AI to truly be a program for the public good, we must address existing challenges, like education and worker displacement, while preparing all corners of society for a bright future.

The structure and guardrails our bill puts into place will ensure that Empire AI can capitalize on the varied strengths, depth of talent, and diverse perspectives of New Yorkers to cement New York State as a national and global leader in AI. This includes the preparation and training of our current and future workforce for the AI-dominated workplaces of the future.