Artificial intelligence is coming, the author says, and we might as well embrace it.
Artificial intelligence is coming, the author says, and we might as well embrace it.
(AI-generated by Matthew L. Swinnerton)
Opinion from Community Voices

AI is our friend, even in Santa Cruz County. Why are we so afraid of it?

Local tech guru and Santa Cruz Works co-founder Doug Erickson ponders the fear surrounding artificial intelligence and the push to regulate it. It’s not a demon monster, he says, but something we all already use in Santa Cruz County. And he applauds our leaders for being open to it. He suggests we approach it with cautious optimism. “AI has the potential to carry us into an epoch of remarkable transformation — one where human effort is minimized, decisions are optimized and public services reach heights of quality previously unimagined,” he writes.

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When I hear people and communities like Santa Cruz County are apprehensive about the incorporation of AI, a puzzled expression initially spreads across my face.

As someone deeply enmeshed in the world of artificial intelligence, I find the anxieties AI raises quaint, even ironic. It is as if we have been standing in a river, worried about getting wet — oblivious to the fact that we are already knee-deep.

Consider this scenario. Picture an individual worried about data privacy, fervently reading countless articles online to learn more about AI. The irony here is rich: They’re using Google to conduct these searches and engaging on Facebook, both platforms that heavily utilize the AI they’re fretting about.

This cognitive dissonance, the tension between our professed fears and our actual behaviors, can seem disheartening to those of us engaged in this field.

In my 35 years in tech, I have seen AI bubble up and deployed in every industry, from e-commerce to health care, to customer service and much more. I was fortunate to work in pioneering companies like WebEx, Live Picture, SugarCRM, as well as lesser-known companies that provided the building blocks for imaging, web, RAID (data storage technology) and performance advertising. In 2019, I retired from a successful career in technical sales to focus on Santa Cruz Works, a supportive ecosystem for entrepreneurs throughout Santa Cruz County.

The current national call for regulation about reining in AI is also a source of interest to me, tinged perhaps with a bit of melancholy. It’s like watching someone trying to catch a cheetah while riding on the back of a tortoise.

I was pleased to see a unanimous June vote by the Santa Cruz Board of Supervisors to create a working group to develop policies on how AI might be used locally. That is progress. It will be interesting to watch how that work emerges.

The pace of technological innovation has consistently outstripped our ability to govern it, and AI is no exception. The speed, or more precisely the lack thereof, at which governments operate can often feel frustratingly out of sync with the nimble, ever-accelerating world of technology.

This isn’t to dismiss concerns out of hand or belittle the sincerity of those calling for a more regulated AI landscape. Instead, it’s a request to acknowledge the complexities and contradictions of our ongoing experience. These tensions between privacy and convenience, between innovation and regulation, are the knots we must untangle as we navigate our future.

And as we do so, a measure of caution, optimism and humor might help.

Although OpenAI burst into the public consciousness only recently, it took many years and billions of dollars to develop. And yet, less than a year after OpenAI launched, personal AIs can be created with as little as 12,000 documents, and spun up on Amazon Web Services for as little as $30.

The number of new “known” AIs brought online is estimated to be as many as a dozen a week.

“Personal AIs created in a coffee shop will become a reality — within months, not years or decades,” explains Craig Vachon, a Santa Cruz resident and CEO of AI Redefined.

AI has the potential to carry us into an epoch of remarkable transformation — one where human effort is minimized, decisions are optimized and public services reach heights of quality previously unimagined. The introduction of AI to local government is no cause for unmitigated concern, but instead warrants tempered optimism.

One reason for this optimism lies in AI’s capacity to drastically increase efficiency and productivity. When imbued with machine intelligence, monotonous tasks become automated, liberating human beings to exercise their capacities for critical thought and empathy — traits unique to us, at least in this stage of our technological evolution.

AI’s unmatched ability to analyze data quickly is another reason for optimism. It can sort through a huge amount of data in no time, providing useful information that can help local governments make decisions. It can foresee trends, manage resources well, and support decisions based on solid data.

This powerful technology can elevate the quality of public services, offering them an innovation injection. AI chatbots, for instance, can be available around the clock to answer citizens’ queries. The predictive capabilities of AI can help to forestall the deterioration of public infrastructure (predictive preventative maintenance) and thus avoid unnecessary fiscal drains.

While there are undeniable costs associated with the initial adoption of AI, the long-term financial picture is often one of considerable savings. The automation of routine tasks and the elimination of human error can lead to significant efficiencies. This prospect of doing more with less is a tantalizing one for local governments.

Yes, some jobs might become obsolete. But we must also acknowledge AI’s potential for job creation, particularly in sectors demanding AI specialists and related roles. AI will not only increase efficiency and productivity, but also improve job satisfaction by enabling us to focus on more challenging and rewarding tasks and experiences.

It is not a zero-sum game.

Should we worry that AI is going to take over Terminator-style? As one person simply explains: If you want to beat AI in chess, just unplug it.

Should we worry when the inventors of AI express concern? Yes, we should be cautious as we move forward. But remember, some of the greatest failures in history are decisions made by the inventors and experts of a new tech.

But let’s focus on the positive.

Our legal and regulatory landscapes, while currently grappling with the novelty of AI, are in a state of dynamic evolution. Academia, governments and international bodies are actively engaging with the legal, ethical and societal challenges posed by AI, striving to create an infrastructure that can host AI responsibly.

Doug Erickson is the founder of Santa Cruz Works.
(Via Doug Erickson)

Let’s trust the process until we have reason not to.

Public-private partnerships are becoming more commonplace, as tech companies recognize their crucial role in helping governments deploy AI. Such collaborations can provide governments with the technical expertise and resources they might otherwise lack.

Perhaps most important, AI has the potential to make local government more accessible and inclusive. AI-powered translation and accessibility tools can help people of diverse backgrounds and abilities interact with their local government more effectively.

As we find ourselves poised on the cusp of this era powered by AI, it’s crucial to recognize its potential to uplift our communities.

Again, kudos to our local authorities for deciding to address AI’s potential to improve government operations, as well as carefully balancing opportunities with risks. AI isn’t just a new tool for governance, it’s a guiding light toward a more efficient, inclusive and responsive government.

So let’s approach this era with purpose and determination to use this technology for the greater good.

Doug Erickson is the executive director of Santa Cruz Works. He has 35-plus years of executive-level positions in companies such as Live Picture, WebEx, Cisco, SugarCRM and Nanigans. Santa Cruz Works was recently honored with the 2023 UCSC Community Changemaker award. On any day when there is good surf or wind, you can find him surfing or kitesurfing.