‘A breath of fresh air’: What futurists have to say about a Biden presidency

Leaders in AI and forecasting describe how the president-elect can wage recoveries on several fronts

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A Biden administration will give the US an edge in science and artificial intelligence but lessons learnt from this campaign cycle mean Americans must get comfortable with uncertainty and update antiquated voting systems, according to a half dozen futurists who spoke to The National.

“Compared to four years of the Trump administration, [Biden] will be a massive breath of fresh air for science and technology,” Thomas A. Campbell, founder and chief executive of FutureGrasp, said.

President-elect Joe Biden will enter office confronting multiple crises – the Covid-19 pandemic, an economic recession and climate change – that are expected to be addressed through massive investments in science and skilled labour under the new administration.

The virus has killed more than 235,000 Americans and wiped out 20 million jobs, according to a report by former US Treasury secretary Lawrence Summers. Meanwhile, Mr Biden’s campaign pledge is to invest as much as $5 trillion to make the US carbon neutral by 2050.

This approach is in contrast to his predecessor, according to Mr Campbell, who was the first national intelligence officer for technology under former president Barack Obama and president Trump.

“In all my years both outside and inside the US government, I have never seen an administration so dismissive of science and technology” as the Trump administration, he said.

He said a national plan for AI was drafted under Mr Trump, but this was delayed for two years despite "the major reports laying out the need for it at the end of the Obama administration”. The plan was implemented last year.

Mr Campbell expects the Biden White House “will look much more like the earlier Obama administration's eight years – supportive of science, technology and policies that will seek to maintain US leadership”.

Mr Biden is expected to include artificial intelligence in any kind of recovery programme, said Katie King, a board adviser and a member of the UK's All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) task force for the enterprise adoption of AI.

His approach will differ from his predecessor’s "America first" strategy, she added.

“Mr Biden is more likely to collaborate with other nations to further the global development of AI and develop global AI regulations,” she said.

The incoming administration is also likely to take a more nuanced policymaking approach to “other pieces of the puzzle” when it comes to implementing AI, such as privacy, surveillance, misinformation, robotics and developing talent, Ms King said.

But Scott Smith, a managing partner of Changeist, a future foresight consultancy based in the Hague, Netherlands, cautioned that given a Republican majority in the Senate and slimmer Democratic House advantage, “any substantial increase in education investment for competitiveness is likely to be stymied”.

Visas, too, like the H1-B visa for non-immigrant technical workers, may be a sticking point for Republican lawmakers, he said.

“Especially with an electorate that’s shown itself to be possibly more nativist”, Mr Biden may come up short on a campaign promise to lift limits on such visas and remove caps on green cards, he said.

Still, he expects that US competitiveness against other AI global leaders such as China or Israel “is unlikely to change dramatically in the next four years” because the foundations for investment and development were laid a decade ago.

Quantitative futurist Amy Webb is also grappling with the implications of a less decisive victory for Democrats, and what that means for voter surveys.

"The massive 'blue wave' being talked about was in no way guaranteed," Ms Webb, the founder and chief executive of the Future Today Institute, said in an email to The National.

Getting comfortable with uncertainty would upend the American opinion polling process, she said, but that is not necessarily a bad thing since polls are fundamentally flawed.

“There is currently no way to design a poll that reveals someone's deeply held beliefs. Fifty thousand simulations don't reveal truths when you start with bad data," she said.

Either way, the party divide “will force people to confront their cherished beliefs in a way that will be extremely difficult. That's true on both sides.”

Mark Minevich, president of Going Global Ventures and an AI expert, said now is the time to leverage AI to do things like predict election outcomes rather than rely on faulty polling. He also wants to use AI to gauge voter sentiment on social media and weed out disinformation or foreign bots attempting to undermine the democratic process.

"We have to ask ourselves why we continue to rely on antiquated systems, paper ballots and inadequate machines to handle the most important day of our democracy," he wrote in Forbes.

He highlighted the work of Democracy Live, an electronic voting company that has been used in more than 2,000 US jurisdictions since 2008, delivering online and polling place balloting technologies to more than 10 million voters.

In January this year they were used by King County in Washington state to conduct a mobile-only election that recorded and counted more than one million votes.

Once security concerns are addressed, Mr Minevich would like to see tools like Democracy Live more widely used.

"Apps would have to be governmentally designed, regulated, monitored and hosted. How will this cascade from federal all the way to local municipalities? Many questions still need to be answered."