Artificial Intelligence Is On The March. But Is Government Ready? AI| Artificial intelligence

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Kent Walker, vice president and general counsel with Google Inc., from right, Colin Stretch, general counsel with Facebook Inc., and Sean Edgett, acting general counsel with Twitter Inc., swear in to a House Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017.  Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Technology has advanced rapidly along several related fronts. In just the last few years, there have been dramatic improvements in robotics, sensors, and machine vision, and Intelligence () can now perform better, per Stanford’s Index, than humans on multiple dimensions, including image recognition, speech recognition, translation, and strategy games such as Go, Poker and chess.

In pursuit of profits from AI-enabled business models, firms are now investing lots of money in these technologies. Worldwide industrial robotics shipments have increased from an annual average of about 100,000 units prior to 2010 to almost 300,000 annual shipments by 2016. Investment in AI startups has gone from less than $500 million annually prior to 2010 to over $4 billion in 2016. According to estimates by McKinsey Global Institute, investment in AI-related projects by established companies was between $18 billion and $27 billion in 2017.


Worries about potential downsides from adoption of these technologies have led to calls for new regulations. For example, data portability could address declining competition between dominant tech platforms and a Universal Basic Income could address mass joblessness arising from automation. Due to lack of data, however, little is known about the efficacy and tradeoffs involved with these types of new policies.

There have also been calls for a new, AI-specific regulatory agency, which would help bring much needed technology expertise into the . But given that AI touches so many different parts of our economy and society, it would be more useful to get the relevant expertise into existing agencies through the creation of AI-specific departments and technology officers.

Policymakers are unprepared

Congress’ questions to Mark Zuckerberg about Facebook’s use of data made clear that many of our policymakers lack a fundamental understanding about technology, and the business models enabled by these technologies. Apparently, many in Congress were unaware that Facebook makes its money from advertisers. There is nothing unique about Facebook’s model—setting very low prices (even free) for a good to one set of users, in order to charge relatively high prices for a good to another set of users, is a common feature of two-sided markets, such as newspapers, magazines, radio, TV, and credit cards.

One way to deal with the current lack of expertise in the government is to create a new agency—such as a “federal robotics commission” or “federal AI agency”—which would have authority to generate rules around robotics- or AI-specific matters, perhaps also involving cybersecurity and election security issues.

A prescient article by Ryan Calo in 2014 described some of the ways in which such an agency would operate. His article is a helpful reminder that the Federal government forms new departments and agencies from time to time to meet new challenges. For example, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was formed in 2002 in response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and several existing agencies such as Immigration and Naturalization Service were re-organized under DHS instead of the Department of Justice (DOJ). Likewise, the Department of Energy was formed by consolidating the Energy Research and Development Administration, Federal Power Commission, and Federal Energy Administration in 1977, in response to the oil crisis earlier in the 1970s.

There are multiple challenges with creating a new commission or agency, including defining the mission or scope of the new agency and reorganizing existing agencies. Would an AI-specific agency have any enforcement authority, similar to Federal Trade Commission or Securities and Exchange Commission? Some have argued that large technology firms have unfair advantages due to network effects and other barriers to entry. Would any remedies or enforcement actions be handled by existing agencies or with a new AI agency? It would be important to sort these domain issues out quickly; one worry would be that uncertainty about which agency is in charge would undermine investment.

Start with domain-specific tech expertise

There are other, less disruptive approaches. If the concern is lack of expertise in government, an alternative approach would have each agency address its own perceived needs via hiring of dedicated staff. The FTC did something in this vein in creating the position of “Chief Technologist,” and the Obama White House similarly created the Chief Technology Officer position within the Office of Science and Technology Policy. A useful role for the White House’s U.S. Digital Service would be to help other executive branch agencies identify whether they have these needs.

There have been recent calls for Congress to revive the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), including by think tanks such as the R Street Institute and by politicians including Senator Elizabeth Warren. An OTA would help educate members of Congress on relevant technology issues including artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, big data, crypto-currencies, cybersecurity, robotics and related topics, meaning there would be fewer wasted hearings (like the Facebook hearings).

AI and other advanced technologies can be thought of as tools that are used across multiple industries in our economy and in multiple facets of our life. As such, it would seem difficult to create an AI-specific agency with a specific domain, separate from other existing agencies. Because these technologies are becoming so ubiquitous, it is instead more useful to consider ways to get relevant expertise into existing agencies and government bodies. With this expertise in place, our policymakers will be better informed, and hopefully better able to make good policy and regulations.

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Kent Walker, vice president and general counsel with Google Inc., from right, Colin Stretch, general counsel with Facebook Inc., and Sean Edgett, acting general counsel with Twitter Inc., swear in to a House Intelligence Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017.  Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Technology has advanced rapidly along several related fronts. In just the last few years, there have been dramatic improvements in robotics, sensors, and machine vision, and Artificial Intelligence (AI) can now perform better, per Stanford’s AI Index, than humans on multiple dimensions, including image recognition, speech recognition, translation, and strategy games such as Go, Poker and chess.

In pursuit of profits from AI-enabled business models, firms are now investing lots of money in these technologies. Worldwide industrial robotics shipments have increased from an annual average of about 100,000 units prior to 2010 to almost 300,000 annual shipments by 2016. Investment in AI startups has gone from less than $500 million annually prior to 2010 to over $4 billion in 2016. According to estimates by McKinsey Global Institute, investment in AI-related projects by established companies was between $18 billion and $27 billion in 2017.

Worries about potential downsides from adoption of these technologies have led to calls for new regulations. For example, data portability could address declining competition between dominant tech platforms and a Universal Basic Income could address mass joblessness arising from automation. Due to lack of data, however, little is known about the efficacy and tradeoffs involved with these types of new policies.

There have also been calls for a new, AI-specific regulatory agency, which would help bring much needed technology expertise into the government. But given that AI touches so many different parts of our economy and society, it would be more useful to get the relevant expertise into existing agencies through the creation of AI-specific departments and technology officers.

Policymakers are unprepared

Congress’ questions to Mark Zuckerberg about Facebook’s use of data made clear that many of our policymakers lack a fundamental understanding about technology, and the business models enabled by these technologies. Apparently, many in Congress were unaware that Facebook makes its money from advertisers. There is nothing unique about Facebook’s model—setting very low prices (even free) for a good to one set of users, in order to charge relatively high prices for a good to another set of users, is a common feature of two-sided markets, such as newspapers, magazines, radio, TV, and credit cards.

One way to deal with the current lack of expertise in the government is to create a new agency—such as a “federal robotics commission” or “federal AI agency”—which would have authority to generate rules around robotics- or AI-specific matters, perhaps also involving cybersecurity and election security issues.

A prescient article by Ryan Calo in 2014 described some of the ways in which such an agency would operate. His article is a helpful reminder that the Federal government forms new departments and agencies from time to time to meet new challenges. For example, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was formed in 2002 in response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and several existing agencies such as Immigration and Naturalization Service were re-organized under DHS instead of the Department of Justice (DOJ). Likewise, the Department of Energy was formed by consolidating the Energy Research and Development Administration, Federal Power Commission, and Federal Energy Administration in 1977, in response to the oil crisis earlier in the 1970s.

There are multiple challenges with creating a new commission or agency, including defining the mission or scope of the new agency and reorganizing existing agencies. Would an AI-specific agency have any enforcement authority, similar to Federal Trade Commission or Securities and Exchange Commission? Some have argued that large technology firms have unfair advantages due to network effects and other barriers to entry. Would any remedies or enforcement actions be handled by existing agencies or with a new AI agency? It would be important to sort these domain issues out quickly; one worry would be that uncertainty about which agency is in charge would undermine investment.

Start with domain-specific tech expertise

There are other, less disruptive approaches. If the concern is lack of expertise in government, an alternative approach would have each agency address its own perceived needs via hiring of dedicated staff. The FTC did something in this vein in creating the position of “Chief Technologist,” and the Obama White House similarly created the Chief Technology Officer position within the Office of Science and Technology Policy. A useful role for the White House’s U.S. Digital Service would be to help other executive branch agencies identify whether they have these needs.

There have been recent calls for Congress to revive the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), including by think tanks such as the R Street Institute and by politicians including Senator Elizabeth Warren. An OTA would help educate members of Congress on relevant technology issues including artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, big data, crypto-currencies, cybersecurity, robotics and related topics, meaning there would be fewer wasted hearings (like the Facebook hearings).

AI and other advanced technologies can be thought of as tools that are used across multiple industries in our economy and in multiple facets of our life. As such, it would seem difficult to create an AI-specific agency with a specific domain, separate from other existing agencies. Because these technologies are becoming so ubiquitous, it is instead more useful to consider ways to get relevant expertise into existing agencies and government bodies. With this expertise in place, our policymakers will be better informed, and hopefully better able to make good policy and regulations.

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