White House Supports Limits on AI

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As governments worldwide mull their AI strategies and policies, the Biden administration called for a “bill of rights” to mitigate adverse consequences.
What’s new: Top advisors to the U.S. president announced a plan to issue rules that would protect U.S. citizens against AI-powered surveillance, discrimination, and other kinds of harm. The dispatch coincided with a call for public comment on how to regulate systems like face recognition used to scan airline passengers, activity monitors that track employee productivity, and classroom management tools that alert teachers when their students tune out.
What they said: U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy director Eric Lander and deputy director Alondra Nelson argue that certain AI applications threaten individual liberty and outline limits:

  • U.S. citizens would be free from “pervasive or discriminatory surveillance” in their homes, communities, and workplaces. They would be informed when AI is behind any decisions that affect their civil rights or liberties. The systems involved would be audited to ensure that their output is accurate and free of bias.
  • Citizens whose rights have been violated by an automated system would have ways to seek redress.
  • The federal government could use its spending power to withhold funds from certain applications. For instance, agencies and contractors could be barred from developing or deploying non-compliant systems. Individual states could choose to do the same.

Behind the news: Momentum is building worldwide to restrict certain uses of AI. Last week, the European Parliament passed a non-binding ban on law enforcement’s use of face recognition and a moratorium on predictive policing algorithms except for serious offenses like child exploitation, financial crimes, and terrorism. Less than a month before, the UN’s human rights commissioner called on member states to institute restrictions. In August, China’s cyberspace administration announced forthcoming rules to limit the influence of recommendation algorithms.
Why it matters: An AI bill of rights is notional for the time being. But it could serve as a blueprint for national legislation, and it certainly would influence some states. And government funding could be a powerful carrot and stick: The U.S. paid $1.9 billion in contracts to AI companies between 2018 and 2020, and many state and local governments rely on federal money for law enforcement, health care, and other services where the use of AI is both growing and controversial.
We’re thinking: We support regulations to help AI maximize benefit and minimize harm, and the president’s endorsement is an important step. That said, we wonder: Would an Electricity Bill of Rights have made sense 100 years ago? We urge regulators to focus not on AI as a whole but on applications in vertical areas such as surveillance, advertising, consumer software, health care, law enforcement, social media, and many other areas. Meanwhile, the deadline for public comment is January 15, 2022. Let’s make ourselves heard!

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