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Local Policymaker Views on Adopting Artificial Intelligence (AI) Technology

A CivicPulse Research Spotlight


The quickly-evolving world of artificial intelligence (AI) technology is transforming life as we know it. All aspects of society, including local government, are affected by AI and the new challenges and opportunities it brings. In some cases, local government is embracing these opportunities while in others, the implementation of AI is met with greater resistance.

To explore how local policymakers think about AI technology, researchers at Perry World House and the University of Pennsylvania, Michael C. Horowitz and Lauren Kahn (in partnership with CivicPulse) fielded a survey of 690 local policymakers in the United States. Below we summarize some of the study’s key findings, which draw from the authors’ new research paper.

Support for using AI for humanitarian operations and certain policing activity

In the survey, policymakers expressed their support for adopting AI in a range of government policy areas. The most popular area for adopting AI was in natural disaster impact planning. A greater number of local officials supported, rather than opposed, adopting AI for responding to 911 calls and for surveillance of criminal suspects and military targets as well.

By contrast, policymakers tended to oppose using AI technology for other policing purposes such as monitoring the civilian population for illegal behavior more generally. They were also skeptical about using AI for making decisions about prison sentences and for assisting with job selection and promotion decisions of state and local officials.



Mixed Views on Autonomous Vehicles

Among the various applications of AI technology, autonomous vehicles have gained especially great attention in recent years, with companies like Uber and Waymo pilot testing autonomous vehicle systems in localities from Phoenix to Pittsburgh. Indeed, the National League of Cities published a “municipal action guide” entitled Autonomous Vehicles Across America in 2018.

This new technology has been met with both optimism and skepticism. When asked to rate their public policy support for autonomous vehicles on a 5-point support-versus-oppose scale, local officials expressed mixed views. The average score was 3.14, which is positive but just over the midpoint.

One of the key predictors of supporting autonomous vehicles is self-reported prior use and familiarity with AI. Officials who reported having no previous experience with AI tended to oppose autonomous vehicles. According to their answers to a set of open-ended survey questions, they also tended to express a different set of concerns than those who did have prior experience. Specifically, officials with no reported AI experience were more likely to cite concerns about lack of control, safety, and information regarding autonomous vehicles. In contrast, officials with more prior AI experience were more likely to bring up political or regulatory aspects of autonomous vehicle use.

Ultimately, AI technology is a rapidly developing issue that will present new opportunities and challenges for local governments. The authors’ new research reflects the range of viewpoints on whether, where, and how this technology might be used.

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