November 5, 2019 at 5:00 am ET
The accelerating pace of technological development in the 1930s led economist John Maynard Keynes to famously predict that within two generations, society would be able to complete “all the operations of agriculture, mining, and manufacture with a quarter of the human effort to which we have been accustomed.” Millions of jobs would be rendered obsolete, and those that remained would likely operate on a reduced 15-hour work week. A crisis of mass idleness loomed. Keynes assumed that in the future most people would fill their days with non-work-related pursuits.
Instead, the opposite happened. Employees stayed on the job, productivity increased, and people worked smarter, not harder, to the benefit of Western standards of living. Electrical and steam-driven machinery vastly increased industrial output and liberated workers from some of their most backbreaking responsibilities. Compounding cycles of growth created millions of new jobs for the expanding population, and productivity improvements catapulted U.S. GDP from less than $1 trillion to almost $20 trillion over the course of the 20th century.
Today, we are on the cusp of a similar revolution, and technologies such as artificial intelligence are this generation’s productivity force-multiplier. Further automation of tasks by computers will help shift workers’ energy and attention to increasingly complex and lucrative tasks, just as we saw during Keynes’ lifetime.
Large sectors of the economy are set for disruption, including transportation and logistics, finance, defense, and health care. We have already been primed that new innovations, such as the autonomous vehicle, could one day shuttle goods around with greater speed and efficiency than was previously thought possible. But don’t forget about the AI implications for larger vehicles, from military helicopters to commercial airplanes and cargo ships.
Even short of autonomous operation, AI is already making a difference, with predictive maintenance algorithms that forecast repair issues ahead of time, thereby maximizing readiness. AI algorithms are rapidly evolving to incorporate the vast variety of information needed to support highly complex applications, such as weather forecasting. The business-to-business and business-to-consumer possibilities are difficult to overstate.
Up to this point, it has been the private sector that has led the development of AI in the United States. Research and development dollars have flowed out of tech giants and venture capital firms, but the future of AI is too big to be driven by private companies alone. Our institutions of higher learning need to be ready to train the future workforce and advance cutting-edge research, while federal and state governments need to recognize that because advanced computing will power our economic future, they should strive to create an amenable policy environment.
The powerful gears of government have already begun to shift into place. In February, the Department of Defense released a far-reaching Artificial Intelligence Strategy that top brass predict will one day “transform all functions of the Department positively.” The president’s recently released 2020 budget includes nearly $1 billion to support these innovations. Hundreds of millions more for AI research are included in budgets for the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, Department of Energy, and other executive branch agencies. These government assets have joined with private sector in pursuit of an AI revolution, and the nation’s research universities are ready to do their share too.
Here in South Carolina, we are ready to put our resources to bear towards this critical initiative, which is an opportunity to diversify the concentration of tech jobs outside of Silicon Valley and seed research funding at universities the country. Given our state’s need for improvement in rural health care access and the substantial manufacturing industry operating within our borders — both of which are prime for AI-driven innovation — South Carolina is uniquely suited for vanguard of this challenge.
The University of South Carolina recently launched an Artificial Intelligence Institute (of which I am the founding director) that aims to become a national leader in applied AI over the next several years. Drawing on UofSC’s expertise in developing partnerships with innovative companies including IBM, Siemens, and Samsung, this new institute will keep future developments in AI focused on applications that make sense for consumers and producers alike.
If done right — with thoughtfulness, care, and the proper investment of resources — AI can be a keystone in the bridge to future economic prosperity for all Americans. Let us drive forward and ensure that AI comes to be synonymous with American Ingenuity.
Dr. Amit Sheth is the founding director of the Artificial Intelligence Institute at the University of South Carolina, where he is also a professor in computer science & engineering, and has previously held positions at Wright State University and the University of Georgia.
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