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White House pushes tech CEOs to limit risks of AI

From left, the senior executives of OpenAI: chief technology officer Mira Murat, chief executive officer Sam Altman, president Greg Brockman, and chief scientist Ilya Sutskever. Altman was among tech executives meeting with Thursday with Vice President Kamala Harris at the White House.  (New York Times)
By David McCabe New York Times

WASHINGTON – The White House on Thursday pushed Silicon Valley CEOs to limit the risks of artificial intelligence, in the administration’s most visible effort to confront rising questions and calls to regulate the rapidly advancing technology.

For more than an hour in the White House’s Roosevelt Room, Vice President Kamala Harris and other officials told the leaders of Google; Microsoft; OpenAI, the maker of the popular ChatGPT chatbot; and Anthropic, an AI startup, that they have a responsibility to seriously consider concerns about the technology. President Joe Biden also briefly stopped by the meeting, the administration said.

It was the first White House gathering of major AI CEOs since the release of tools such as ChatGPT, which have captivated the public and supercharged a race to dominate the technology.

“The private sector has an ethical, moral and legal responsibility to ensure the safety and security of their products,” Harris said in a statement. “And every company must comply with existing laws to protect the American people.”

The meeting signified how the AI boom has entangled the highest levels of the U.S. government and put pressure on governments worldwide to get a handle on the technology. Since OpenAI released ChatGPT to the public last year, many of the world’s biggest tech companies have rushed to incorporate chatbots into their products and accelerated AI research. Venture capitalists have poured billions of dollars into AI startups.

But the AI explosion has also raised fears about how the technology might transform economies, shake up geopolitics and bolster criminal activity. Critics have worried that powerful AI systems are too opaque, with the potential to discriminate, displace people from jobs, spread disinformation and perhaps even break the law on their own.

Even some of the makers of AI have warned against the technology’s consequences. This week, Geoffrey Hinton, a pioneering researcher who is known as a “godfather” of AI, resigned from Google so he could speak openly about the risks posed by the technology.

Biden recently said that it “remains to be seen” whether AI is dangerous, and some of his top appointees have pledged to intervene if the technology is used in a harmful way. Members of Congress, including Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, have also moved to draft or propose legislation to regulate AI.

That pressure to regulate the technology has been felt in many places. Lawmakers in the European Union are in the midst of negotiating rules for AI and face pressure for those rules to cover chatbots like ChatGPT. In China, authorities recently demanded that AI systems adhere to strict censorship rules.

“Europe certainly isn’t sitting around, nor is China,” said Tom Wheeler, a former chair of the Federal Communications Commission. “There is a first mover advantage in policy as much as there is a first mover advantage in the marketplace.”

Wheeler said all eyes are on what actions the United States might take.

“We need to make sure that we are at the table as players,” he said. “Everybody’s first reaction is, ‘What’s the White House going to do?’”

Hours before the meeting, the White House announced that the National Science Foundation plans to spend $140 million on new research centers devoted to AI. The administration also pledged to release draft guidelines for government agencies to ensure that their use of AI safeguards “the American people’s rights and safety,” adding that several AI companies had agreed to make their products available for scrutiny in August at a cybersecurity conference.

The White House had indicated before the meeting that it wanted to impress upon the companies that they should address the risks of new AI developments.

“We aim to have a frank discussion of the risks we each see in current and near-term AI development, actions to mitigate those risks and other ways we can work together to ensure the American people benefit from advances in AI while being protected from its harms,” Arati Prabhakar, the director of the White House office of science and technology policy, said in an invitation to the meeting obtained by the New York Times.

The meeting and announcements build on earlier efforts by the administration to place guardrails on AI.

Last year, the White House released what it called a blueprint for an AI bill of rights, which said that automated systems should protect users’ data privacy, shield them from discriminatory outcomes and make clear why certain actions were taken. In January, the Commerce Department also released a framework for reducing risk in AI development, which had been in the works for years.

But concrete steps to rein in the technology may be more likely to come first from law enforcement agencies in Washington.

A group of government agencies pledged in April to “monitor the development and use of automated systems and promote responsible innovation,” while punishing violations of the law committed using the technology.

In a guest essay in The Times on Wednesday, Lina Khan, the chair of the Federal Trade Commission, said the nation was at a “key decision point” with AI. She likened the technology’s recent developments to the birth of tech giants like Google and Facebook, and she warned that, without proper regulation, the technology could entrench the power of the biggest tech companies and give scammers a potent tool.

“As the use of AI becomes more widespread, public officials have a responsibility to ensure this hard-learned history doesn’t repeat itself,” she said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.