Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning

New York City Takes Aim at AI

The Big Apple fields an action plan for artificial intelligence.

Credit: Shutterstock bridge heading into New York City, AI-generated illustration

As concerns over artificial intelligence (AI) grow and angst about its potential impact increase, political leaders and government agencies are taking notice. In November, U.S. president Joe Biden issued an executive order designed to build guardrails around the technology. Meanwhile, the European Union (EU) is currently developing a legal framework around responsible AI.

Yet, what is often overlooked about artificial intelligence is that it’s more likely to impact people on a local level. AI touches housing, transportation, healthcare, policing and numerous other areas relating to business and daily life. It increasingly affects citizens, government employees, and businesses in both obvious and unintended ways.

One city attempting to position itself at the vanguard of AI is New York. In October 2023, New York City announced a blueprint for developing, managing, and using the technology responsibly. The New York City Artificial Intelligence Action Plan—the first of its kind in the U.S.—is designed to help officials and the public navigate the AI space.

“It’s a fairly comprehensive plan that addresses both the use of AI within city government and the responsible use of the technology,” says Clifford S. Stein, Wai T. Chang Professor of Industrial Engineering and Operations Research and Interim Director of the Data Science Institute at Columbia University.

Adds Stefaan Verhulst, co-founder and chief research and development officer at The GovLab and Senior Fellow at the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), “AI localism focuses on the idea that cities are where most of the action is in regard to AI.”

Putting AI to Work

The 50-page Action Plan is designed to serve as a framework for developing applications, policies, and rules surrounding the use of artificial intelligence. It addresses factors such as guiding principles, public reporting methods, risk assessment standards, a project review process, and ways to promote knowledge and AI skill development within city government.

The initiative connects 18 internal city stakeholders—including the Department of Buildings, the Fire Department of New York, Department of Education, Department of Finance, and the Commission on Human Rights. It also touches 10 external stakeholders, including the NY Tech Alliance, The GovLab, AI for the People, and Columbia University’s Data Science Institute.

Although it’s too early to know whether the program will lead to positive results, there’s already plenty of optimism about it. “I am proud to introduce a plan that will strike a critical balance in the global AI conversation—one that will empower city agencies to deploy technologies that can improve lives while protecting against those that can do harm,” stated New York city mayor Eric Adams at the launch.

The plan is important for a few reasons, Columbia’s Stein says. First, it engages a large number of stakeholders outside of government. Second, it includes the explicit goal of implementing and using AI technologies within the city, either by engaging with outside companies or by hiring employees with AI skills. Third, it encourages the use of chatbots and other tools to make government more accessible—and functional.

“We are beginning to see AI touch cities and local citizens in important ways,” Verhulst adds. “The idea of governing artificial intelligence at a local level is beginning to take shape. New York City is attempting to set the stage for identifying and defining the various components that are critical for governing of AI at a local level.”

Beyond Data Points

While New York City may be a pioneer in adopting an AI plan in the U.S., the idea of local governments establishing AI oversight is gaining momentum globally. The GovLab, which tracks AI initiatives, reports that more than 200 local and state plans exist around the world, including San Francisco, CA (facial recognition), Helsinki, Finland (data registries) and Montreal, Canada (surveillance).

Many of these initiatives take aim at a specific AI component. However, New York City’s goal is to build AI into the fabric of city government, use it in a positive way, and monitor its role in impacting policies, decisions, and outcomes. So far, only a handful of other cities have taken this tact, according to The GovLab. The list includes Singapore; Barcelona, Spain; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Brussels, Belgium; and several cities in the Netherlands, including Amsterdam.

Local AI initiatives are an important complement to state and national regulations, says Verhulst, who also serves as an adjunct professor in the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University. “Not everything has to be built around regulations.” These programs—partly because they are broad and adaptable—can help cities and other agencies learn what works, fill gaps, and ultimately “build a framework and guardrails that are flexible and adaptable.”

Other potential benefits, Stein says, include a focus on AI explainability, and city employees gaining valuable AI skills. “This should, over time, change the culture of the city employees to be more open to considering tech-savvy problems to solutions,” he says.

The biggest challenge, Stein says, is whether New York City can muster the resources required to transform ideas into real-world actions—and results. “The plan doesn’t explicitly designate any resources—things like funding or hiring employees for specific positions. In order for the action plan to succeed, the city must allocate people and money to the initiative.”

Noted Mutale Nkonde, founder and CEO of AI for the People, “The city can not only use AI to improve the delivery of public services, but also make sure that these technologies work for the public good.”

Elevating AI

Time will tell whether the New York City AI Action Plan ushers in responsible and beneficial AI at a local level. “Decisions should not be made from a black box. In order for the public to have confidence in the technology, the public must understand the basic reasoning that drives outcomes and results,” Stein says.

A proactive approach to managing AI is a vital first step, Verhulst concludes. “This program gives the city—and other cities that see what New York is doing—a way to learn about obstacles, challenges, and best practices. It delivers transparency and a way to encourage public engagement.”

Samuel Greengard is an author and journalist based in West Linn, OR, USA.

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