Boston is in a perfect position to become the AI capital of the world
Google signs a new lease in Manhattan. Amazon hangs out its shingle in Queens. Apple announces a $1 billion campus in Austin. It seems that all the tech titans are planting their flags in vibrant, educated, progressive cities.
As one of the most vibrant, educated, progressive cities in the world, has Boston been left out of the latest flood of technological investment? More important, are we at risk of missing the economic wave of the future?
Not in the least. Boston has attracted world-class companies before, and we’ll do it again. But going after titans is a strategy from the past. Our city’s stakeholders — universities, government, and business leadership — should find a new field in which we lead the way.
The path is clear. We should become the global hub for advances in artificial intelligence. And we already have the blueprint: our experience with the life sciences.
When the first biotechnology seeds took root around Boston in the 1970s, with companies such as Biogen, the region was already fertile ground for an industry based on intellectual advances. No other US city has a business ecosystem that includes so many world-class research universities and teaching hospitals, and, with the arrival of new students, a perennially replenished reservoir of educated talent.
But an initial flowering doesn’t guarantee sustained growth, much less continued leadership. The region’s extraordinary “BioBoom” has been the result of planning and partnership — and also political will.
In 1976, authorities in Cambridge enacted the world’s first local ordinance regulating research with recombinant DNA. Having established a set of rules for the game, it attracted players. Genzyme opened for business in 1981. By 2003, the neighborhood had brought in giants like Novartis. Then, in 2008, Governor Deval Patrick signed legislation to invest $1 billion in the Massachusetts life sciences industry over 10 years.
Beyond discoveries made and lives saved, the economic outcomes have been extraordinary: According to the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, the life sciences industry now employs more than 100,000 people statewide and, just last year, drew more than triple the venture capital investment it did 10 years ago. This year, Governor Charlie Baker signed a five-year renewal of the plan, adding another $623 million in bond authorization and tax credits.
Artificial intelligence isn’t exactly like the life sciences; its mission and potential uses aren’t as uniform, and its potential uses have made people understandably wary. Such potential could include eliminating up to half of all existing jobs, spreading virulent misinformation, and unleashing deadly autonomous weapons.
On the other hand, AI could usher in a golden age in which human ills like hunger and disease are relegated to the history books. Boston’s mission-driven universities could help steer the industry toward uses that benefit humankind.
Building a successful AI hub means knowing what to avoid. General Motors’ pending plant closures across the country prove that a community’s reliance on a single institution can be disastrous. Massachusetts’ life sciences industry is flourishing because it isn’t dependent on the health of a monolithic entity, but on a diversity of companies and organizations — MassBio counts more than 1,100 members. In approaching AI, we should cultivate just as wide a field.
The life sciences boom has also taught us what to keep doing, such as cultivating clusters of innovation in the shadow of universities. From startups to venture capital funds to pharmaceutical multinationals, Greater Boston has become home to the world’s densest concentration of life science activity. Talent and innovation attract more talent and kindle more innovation.
Success comes from encouraging the growth of an innovative culture. A new study from Boston Consulting Group found that the “fundamental drivers of AI success” across industries and nations are “innovation cycles measured in months instead of years, a management culture that actively demands AI innovation and is willing to green-light small-scale AI projects, and a cross-functional approach to rapid prototyping.”
The Boston area is already fertile ground. We’re home to established names such as iRobot and Amazon Robotics, as well as startups in conversational AI and autonomous vehicle software. Philanthropists are also stepping up and investing in the future of AI research and education: MIT recently announced plans for a new AI college, while Northeastern just named its fastest-growing college the Khoury College of Computer and Information Sciences.
All of this puts Boston in a perfect position to become the AI capital of the world. Just as we saw with the life sciences boom, well-timed government investments will be a welcome catalyst. We know that competitors overseas — particularly governments across Asia — are making large-scale bets on AI. Instead of courting today’s technological titans, then, let’s act together to create the leading companies of tomorrow.
If it works, perhaps AI can even get our traffic sorted out, too.
Joseph E. Aoun is president of Northeastern University and author of “Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence.”