Bipartisan Agreement in Congress on AI Points to Way Forward with China
By John P. Desmond, AI Trends Editor
The final report from the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, released last week, points to a surprisingly bipartisan agreement on the importance of setting an AI industrial policy to compete with China.
Broad congressional support for an activist stance on a pro-American AI industrial policy is evidenced by 19 of the commission’s recommendations having been inserted in the defense authorization act passed in January, including what could be billions of dollars in spending for new semiconductor fabrication plants in the US, according to an account in The Washington Post.
“Members of the commission and others close to this issue are agitated about the need for radically increased U.S. efforts,” stated David Ignatius, a Post columnist who authored the piece. “They literally think our future is at stake, militarily, economically and even politically.”
The government-directed investment is being spurred by China’s “civil-military fusion” that has the potential to overwhelm US efforts.
Eric Schmidt, the former Google chief executive who chaired the commission, stated in testimony before Congress last month that, “The threat of Chinese leadership in key technology areas is a national crisis.” The approach of leaving the solution to private companies is too risky, he said. Instead, “We will need a hybrid approach that more tightly aligns government and private-sector efforts to win,” he suggested.
The panel included many tech luminaries, including Safra Catz, chief executive of Oracle; Eric Horvitz, chief scientific officer of Microsoft; Andy Jassy, the director of Amazon Web Services who will become Amazon’s chief executive this year; and Andrew Moore, head of Google’s Cloud Artificial Intelligence unit. The report recommended that, by 2026, nationally funded AI research and development spending should total $32 billion.
While the Biden Administration may not back the recommendations 100%, support is strong. “This is the kind of bipartisan support we hope can drive new investment” in AI and other emerging technologies, stated a senior administration official to the Post. Jason Matheny, the founding director of the Center for Security and Emerging Technology at Georgetown University and a member of the 15-person panel, is expected to be appointed deputy director of Biden’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, according to the Post.
In the report’s Executive Summary, the authors state: “The United States should invest what it takes to maintain its innovation leadership, to responsibly use AI to defend free people and free societies, and to advance the frontiers of science for the benefit of all humanity. AI is going to reorganize the world. America must lead the charge.”
Federal Agencies Asked to Inventory All AI Efforts
These advances come as the European Commission has put forth the Digital Services Act, which will create oversight for how internet platforms use AI, according to a report from The Brookings Institution. In the US, the Office of Management and Budget asked federal agencies to outline AI adoption plans, with a deadline of May 17 to respond.
Some regulations need to be adapted and some need to be adopted. For example, the Department of Transportation needs to ensure consumer safety from autonomous vehicles; the Food and Drug Administration needs to adapt regulations for AI-enhanced medical devices; and the Equal Opportunity Commission needs to enforce anti-discrimination laws from AI hiring systems.
“In the absence of guiding legislation, these agency-driven interventions, framed by the OMB guidance, will significantly inform future AI oversight,” stated Alex Engler, author of the report, who studies the implications of AI on society and governance for Brookings.
The White House issued an executive order in December that asks the Federal Chief Information Officers Council to create an inventory of AI applications, and the ways they are using AI in non-classified ways. “This will likely be the most extensive cataloging of AI applications in the federal government,” Engler stated.
The recent National Defense Authorization Act created a National AI Initiative Office to coordinate the federal AI effort. It is set within the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. “That coordination looks to be quite valuable,” Engler stated, noting the multiple sources of AI research funding, including from the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and defense-related sources, such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
Meanwhile, members of Congress continue to focus on issues posed by the spread of AI, such as risks from data bias. The Algorithmic Accountability Act, introduced in 2019, is expected to require tech companies to conduct bias audits on their AI. The three sponsors plan to reintroduce the bill in the new Democratic-led Congress and White House, coming after several high-profile instances of discriminatory AI and a “growing awareness that tech companies can’t be trusted to self-regulate,” according to an account in Fast Company.
The Algorithmic Accountability Act of 2019 proposed that companies with more than $50 million in revenues, or possession of data on more than 100 million people, would have to conduct algorithmic impact assessments of their technology. The algorithmic audit represents an approach similar to the framework used in environmental impact assessments, where public or private entities study how a new project or technology might impact nature and people, the report suggested.
“Companies need to be accountable for harmful tech–after all, redlining drawn by a computer does just as much damage as redlining policies drafted by a person,” stated Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon and a co-sponsor of the bill. “It’s common sense to require companies to audit their systems to ensure that algorithms don’t do harm. That’s why I plan to update the Algorithmic Accountability Act to incorporate feedback from experts and reintroduce it soon,” he stated.
In another sign of the importance the Biden Administration attaches to science, geneticist Eric Lander was named director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, raising it to a Cabinet-level position for the first time. This suggests that the new administration regards science and tech policy issues such as AI ethics and privacy as equal in importance to other Cabinet-level concerns such as defense, trade, and energy, the account suggests. The bill’s authors are considering changing the language of the bill to require developers to disclose to some degree the results of their audits of algorithmic bias.