3 things to watch for in A.I. in 2021

New developments in artificial intelligence may seem trivial compared to recent events like the Capitol riots in which pro-Trump rioters attempted to subvert the election.

But 2021 will likely be a big year for A.I., and with a new White House administration soon in place, there may be a clearer set of national A.I. policies that will trickle down to the business world. 

Here are three key themes to watch out for:

Federal A.I. funding gets a boost

On New Year’s Day, the U.S. Senate voted to overturn President Trump’s veto of the National Defense Authorization Act and authorize $741 billion for defense spending, including the creation of a number of A.I.-related polices. Among the reasons Trump opposed the defense bill was the absence of a provision to repeal Section 230, which gives legal protections to Internet companies that host user-generated content. 

Although the defense bill was mostly geared toward military spending, it did contain a number of non-defense related A.I. initiatives, as Stanford University’s Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence group outlined. For instance, the bill would create a “National AI Initiative” that would coordinate A.I. research and development between “civilian agencies,” the Defense Department, and intelligence agencies. It would also create a National AI Initiative Office that would serve as a hub for federal A.I. projects and for public and private companies.

It’s a major step for those who believe the Trump administration didn’t do enough to ensure that the U.S. remains an A.I. powerhouse as challengers like China push ahead with their own A.I. initiatives. 

It also sets the stage for the incoming Biden Administration to take a more proactive role in creating Federal A.I. policies and perhaps increase A.I. research funding, as the Biden campaign said would be crucial.

Facial-recognition software on the rise

The Biden Administration, specifically Vice President–elect Kamala Harris, has highlighted the problem of facial-recognition software working better on white males than women and people of color, and the consequences to society as the use of the software grows. 

Expect more state and local governments to create their own facial-recognition laws as the lawmakers work on more comprehensive facial-recognition rules. There is no sign that use of the controversial software is slowing down, as reports have emerged that law enforcement are using the technology to identify suspects in the recent D.C. riots, even though the software has previously misidentified criminal suspects of color.

And as employees return to work after COVID-19, companies could spend more on facial-recognition software as a security tool to identify workers, pitching the software as a safe way to track and monitor staff.

Business gets some help from A.I. writers

The A.I. firm OpenAI captured the business and research world’s attention with its high-profile GPT-3 language software that outperforms previous technologies in generating readable text. The software is just one of many so-called natural language processing systems that are getting better at writing coherent sentences and analyzing documents.

There’s no sign that progress in A.I. language systems is slowing, and while these software systems may stumble at the many nuances of human language, they are getting better at summarizing complicated research and spotting patterns in speech that would otherwise go undetected. 

Expects businesses to increase their use of A.I. to analyze financial documents, sales calls, call center transcripts, and anything else that has to do with written language. 

Jonathan Vanian 
@JonathanVanian
jonathan.vanian@fortune.com

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The societal reckoning over systemic racism continues to underscore the importance businesses must place on responsible A.I. All leaders are wrestling with thorny questions around liability and bias, exploring best practices for their company, and learning how to set effective industry guidelines on how to use the technology. Join us for our second interactive Fortune Brainstorm A.I. community conversation, presented by Accenture, on Tuesday, January 26, 2021 at 1:00–2:00 p.m. ET.

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