A saying often heard from companies like Google and Microsoft is that they want to democratize AI. That’s a nice word, democratize — it’s got “democracy” in it — but it’s unclear how these companies define democratization, and, like AI, it has an air of hype to it.

Democratization in almost every context means delivering opportunities and benefits to everyone, but what exactly does democratization of AI mean to tech giants currently hoovering up much of the world’s AI talent supply?

Google chief scientist Fei-Fei Li has talked about it in relation to tensor processing units, and CEO Sundar Pichai in relation to AutoML, machine learning made to create machine learning.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella describes democratization as putting AI in the hands of “every developer, every organization, every public sector organization around the world.”

The implications of AI that touches every industry and sector of society demand that tech giants consider democratization beyond championing the use of their own AI services. This year, steps were taken toward that goal.

Google acquired Kaggle this spring to fuel machine learning competitions and support ideas from anywhere, while Microsoft’s AI Fund supported startups like Bonsai, a company working to simplify the implementation of TensorFlow (use of the open source library for machine learning skyrocketed this year). There’s also programs like Nvidia’s Inception, which has supported more than 2,000 AI startups in about a year’s time.

Democratization should also mean supporting ventures into areas not traditionally touched by AI, like Microsoft’s $50 million AI for Earth initiative to aid in the fight against climate change, and championing the creation of standards so that AI in health care doesn’t disproportionately benefit men over women or that predictive policing doesn’t unfairly target people of color.

In addition to driving efficiency gains, AI is expected to destabilize the labor market, taking 30 to 40 percent of jobs by 2030, according to a PwC study. Those losses will disproportionately hit certain jobs, cities, and nations around the world.

Therefore, the definition of democratization must also include what Andrew Ng calls a New New Deal, to help workers displaced by AI find jobs or get paid to study new skills.

Physicist Stephen Hawking is best known for being an AI doomsayer, but speaking at Web Summit in Lisbon, Portugal last month, he actually said he’s optimistic about AI’s potential to do things like reverse climate change or eradicate disease, but we’ve got to be careful. According to Hawking, AI could end humanity or greatly advance the human race; it could end poverty or lead to “new ways for the few to oppress the many.”

In 2018 and the years ahead, we will come to understand how the actions of dominant companies at the forefront of AI execute on democratization, and whether the benefits of AI improve everyone’s lives or exacerbate existing inequalities.

Governments have a major role to play, and individuals have their own responsibility, but tech giants have an opportunity to take actions that define democratization in the best way possible. Doing so would allow them to be seen as proactive members of society, not the benefactors of one of the most disruptive forces of modern times.

If hugely influential companies like Google and Microsoft want to have a positive impact, they need to make sure they do right by the rest of the world as they push the field forward and define what it means to democratize AI. They have the power to ensure this new and rapidly growing technology benefits everyone’s lives. Here’s hoping, for our sake, they make the right choice.

For AI coverage, send news tips to Blair Hanley Frank and Khari Johnson, and guest post submissions to Cosette Jarrett — and be sure to bookmark our AI Channel.

Thanks for reading,

Khari Johnson

AI Staff Writer

P.S. Please enjoy this video: Decentralized Artificial Intelligence

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