Peter H. Diamandis penned an article recently that discusses whether technology, particularly artificial intelligence, will make government irrelevant. Failure to keep up with private sector digitization combined with declining trust on the part of its citizens, argues Dr. Diamandis, contributes to emerging technology knocking government off of its dominant perch.
While I see government remaining behind the private sector in the adoption of artificial intelligence, I don’t see the concept of government going away anytime soon. If anything, at least in the short and intermediate run, emerging technologies are going to be used to augment what government does.
In addition, at the risk of sounding metaphysical, until humans can abandon corporeal form, they will always need access to physical infrastructure in order to get to work or entertainment venues or have goods transported between physical points.
Part of government’s role, the role that allows it to maintain its dominant perch, is its responsibility for maintaining and administering physical space. Government in the United States, through its public works initiatives, leverages less than five percent of total national capital to carry out this role.
The American Public Works Association defines public works as the following:
“Public works is the combination of physical assets, management practices, policies, and personnel necessary for government to provide and sustain structures and services essential to the welfare and acceptable quality of life for its citizens.”
Public works is an increasingly information intensive endeavor and rather than allowing an emerging information economy disrupt government’s public management of physical jurisdiction, I see government using the information markets to strengthen its influence and control.
Some local and state governments are at the crossroads when it comes to extracting, organizing, and leveraging information and information technology in order to maintain their viability. As Michael Ward wrote in 2015 during an assessment of the use of information technology by local and state government in Massachusetts, many of the Bay State’s agencies were not taking full advantage of data especially when it comes to determining how effective their local and state government programs are.
What Mr. Ward found were local and state agencies in general and public works agencies in particular using inadequate work order systems, relying instead on antiquated technology such as Post-it notes and e-mail. He also found that in the era of big data, machine learning, and deep learning that not only were data entry skills lacking, but also lacking were the skills necessary for analyzing data.
But government, at least on the local and state level, doesn’t appear quite ready to abdicate its role in developing or deploying public infrastructure due to a failure to use data adequately. One example is local government exploration of the use of geographic information system technology for public works projects.
National Geographic defines a geographic information system as a computer system for capturing, storing, checking, and displaying data related to positions on Earth’s surface. There is an efficiency resulting from this type of mapping tool as it allows various amounts of data, i.e., vegetation, buildings, roads, etc., to be shown on one map. Combining various types of data allows easier analysis of patterns and relationships.
ESRI, in a 2006 white paper, provided examples of best practices for local governments that choose to use this tool for data gathering and management. Extracting and sharing data within public works agencies and with other local government agencies is one benefit. According to ESRI, public works employees can tap into data collected by GIS in order to create maps,, design new projects, build infrastructure, and manage existing assets.
But if information technology such as GIS exist, why the concern that government may become irrelevant as a result of emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, deep learning, and machine learning? Is it just wishful thinking on the part of libertarian-leaning technologists? Is it a belief that technology is deterministic of how political power is going to be balanced or exercised? Is it the perception that government is notoriously slow to respond to change?
The answers to the above questions may be “yes”, but I believe that the existence or relevance of institutions such as government lays in the hands of the humans that created them. Government and politics are social relationships that may be enhanced by technology. Technology does shape how social and political actors engage each other, whether from attending a town hall meeting in person in 1960 to listening in via telephone in 1984 to streaming it live and watching on a smart phone in 2018. It won’t change, however, the need for humans to form factions that compete against one another for the control and management of public resources.
Government will remain relevant. In what form is always the question.