New York City begins developing an AI strategy

New York City is getting an artificial intelligence tsar.

Well, it may not technically be billed as such, but the city’s Office of Technology and Innovation is hiring for the newly created role of Director of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, who will lead what the office calls a new “encompassing AI.” strategy”.

The position, which lists a salary range of $75,000 to $140,000, will be responsible for helping agencies use artificial intelligence and machine learning tools “productively and responsibly.”

If this sounds familiar, that’s because the role bears a striking resemblance to some of the responsibilities of the algorithm management and policy officer, a position created in 2019 under then-Mayor Bill de Blasio to help the city and its agencies with the… Lead development and evaluation of algorithmic tools, often involving AI and machine learning.

The role of algorithm officer was eliminated last year when Mayor Eric Adams established the Office of Technology and Innovation, which consolidated the city’s many technology departments into one office. As such, the task of reviewing the City’s use of algorithmic tools and guiding their responsible use fell to, and will now fall to, this new Director.

However, an executive at the city’s technical office said the new position will go beyond that and “think more broadly about issues related to AI and machine learning,” including new use cases. Alex Foard, who was algorithm management and policy officer under de Blasio and is now the technology office’s executive director for research and collaboration, suggested the new role will have more opportunities for action than the position he previously held. Foard attributed this to the organization of the Office of Technology and Innovation, which he says has greater authority to oversee how city officials use technology.

When asked for evidence that the Office of Technology and Innovation is a more empowered agency due to its centralized position, a spokesperson pointed to several new initiatives launched by the office in its first year, including a “cyber academy” to train and certify city employees to manage cybersecurity incidents in their own agencies, and Big Apple Connect, a program that pledges to subsidize 300,000 public housing residents free internet and basic cable subscriptions by the end of this year. The latter was the government’s primary focus on the issue of expanding Internet access after scrapping the de Blasio-era Internet master plan.

While details on the city’s AI strategy are still scarce, the Adams administration is not shy about using these tools. “We definitely want to encourage government agencies to consider places where AI could be a solution and help them do their jobs and serve the public better,” Foard said when asked about this strategy would involve an expanded use of AI tools by the city. But Foard said the other side of that coin is acknowledging the challenges and risks that sometimes come with AI solutions and ensuring guard rails are in place.

Automated tools and algorithms can be biased in their design or the way they are used and end up producing erroneous results. New York City passed a law in 2021 that requires all employers who want to use algorithm- and AI-based decision-making tools in their hiring process to conduct a bias audit of the tool beforehand. However, the rulemaking process is underway and implementation of the law has been postponed until April.

Concerns about bias and privacy in tools that agencies rely on for decision-making prompted the city to create an automated decision-making systems task force, which preceded the creation of the algorithm officer role. City authorities are still required by law to report on the algorithmic tools they use.

Previous audits showed that not only the more publicized police use of facial recognition or gunshot detection technology falls under this umbrella. It’s also the DNA analysis program used by the Chief Medical Examiner’s office with evidence from the crime scene, or the Department of Education’s algorithm that matches applicants to schools.

While the Algorithms Management and Policy Officer was tasked with establishing guiding principles for how agencies can benefit from innovative tools and still use them ethically, Foard said most of the early work in his position focused on already providing transparency around the Creating tools in use. Creating AI stewardship principles will also be part of the new director’s role, but the city’s technology office isn’t yet talking about what those standards would look like.