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CHAPTER I - Introduction

Over the course of seventy years, efforts to develop artificial intelligence (AI) have encountered no fewer than four “AI winters” in which confidence in the technologies virtually collapsed. Over the past five years, however, various forms of AI have surged ahead with astonishing speed — multiple initiatives to build autonomous cars, factory automation, predictive analytics for human behavior, personalized marketing, algorithmic trading, civil infrastructure for “smart cities,” medical diagnostic techniques, supply chain logistics and scores of other applications.

The power, scope and resilience of the current AI boom has persuaded many observers that society may be approaching an inflection point in history. As machines learn to learn — supported by copious, affordable computer memory, storage, connectivity, datasets and related technologies — AI is experiencing a powerful renaissance. The economics are so compelling, the technology so powerful, and the applications so diverse, that many observers now regard artificial intelligence as an inevitable, profoundly transformational force.

And yet this future is arriving with no small measure of uncertainty, trepidation and resistance. Even in their nascent stages of development, AI technologies are likely to radically reshape most sectors of the economy, including transport, energy, healthcare, retail and beyond. AI also raises new questions for government in rethinking economic policy, trade, national security and the future of work. AI technologies are likely to affect the basic institutions of democracy and government, everyday social practices and culture, and our deepest sense of what humanity is and should be.

To take stock of the many ways in which AI may change the world or not, the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program convened thirty leading technologists, industry executives, social scientists, policymakers, public-interest advocates, and others, at the second annual Roundtable on Artificial Intelligence. The event, from August 6-8, 2017, in Aspen, Colorado, was moderated by Charles M. Firestone, Executive Director of the Communications and Society Program. This report, by rapporteur David Bollier, is an interpretive summary of the most significant themes discussed at the gathering.

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