The role of the state in AI

Artificial Intelligence (AI) has already changed our way of life, from predictive and transactional algorithms to improved healthcare treatments. Since AI will continue to change our lives, it’s worth our time to consider historical precedent. What role should the government play in times of rapid social change?

In 1933 Congress (USA) passed the ‘American Agricultural Act’, encouraging the destruction of crops and livestock: 6.4 million piglets were slaughtered [1]. This was done to combat “overproduction” [2]! The East India Company was granted a monopoly in 1600 [3]. We are all aware of the mercantile nature of the British Empire, a tax exemption would have been sufficient to encourage British trade in India. Admittedly two different examples aren’t conclusive but brevity insists I cherry pick. I can’t help but notice a trend in the effects of government intervention.

The Chinese and American governments are pouring resources into AI research, and no wonder when AI will likely define the world’s next superpower. However, we are being presented with an implied choice, a false choice, between government research and no research. The government cannot research AI, it can only take resources and talent out of the private sector. This isn’t the first time governments have heavily invested in AI research. The Japanese government funded the ‘Fifth Generation Computer Systems 1982’, losing out to competition, despite gargantuan funding [4].

Imagine if governments kept drills from us, in order to save construction jobs. It’s dangerous to let the government pick winners in markets, the consumer should be sufficient. If we wish to avoid problems with AI, we’re going to need to outsource problem-solving to as many people as possible, not to civil servants.

AI will allow the workforce to shift away from repetitive work toward creative work. Nail salons and genetic counselling didn’t exist decades ago, in the 19th century dead horse removal was a massive industry in cities [5].  Perhaps essay writing will become a common livelihood!


[1] Livestock Under the AAA, The Brookings Institution, 1935

[2] Hurt, R. Douglas, Problems of Plenty: The American Farmer in the Twentieth Century, (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2002), 68

[3] Niall Ferguson, Empire: How Britain Made The Modern World, page 18

[4] Andrew Pollack, “Fifth Generation” Became Japan’s Lost Generation, June 5, 1992, New York Times

[5] Jennifer Lee, “When Horses Posed a Public Health Hazard”, June 9 2008, New York Times

Alex Jones-Probert is the runner-up of the 18-21 category in the ASI's 'Young Writer on Liberty' competition.