Congress must avoid an 'America First' policy on artificial intelligence

Congress must avoid an 'America First' policy on artificial intelligence
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Last week, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Bay City Capital managing director David Beier argued in an opinion piece for The Hill that the U.S. government is behind the curve when it comes to responding to the promises and perils of artificial intelligence. The time has come, they wrote, for a national conversation on the topic, started by Congress through the creation of a bipartisan national commission on artificial intelligence.

Their diagnosis of the problem is on point. Prominent U.S. officials have exhibited disconcerting nonchalance toward a set of technologies that some experts believe holds more transformative potential than fire or the steam engine. Where Daschle and Beier miss the mark, however, is in prescribing a national commission focused primarily on bolstering domestic innovation and economic growth.

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Congress, if it is to address artificial intelligence and its attendant issues in any meaningful sense, must take a far more expansive view, one that considers the implications of these technologies both at home and abroad. National competitiveness, while important, is not and should not be the end-all be-all when it comes to crafting policy. The reasons for this are simple: Artificial intelligence’s effects will extend well beyond American borders, and happenings abroad will affect domestic life and U.S. foreign policy in pronounced ways.

Public discourse around artificial intelligence has, thus far, focused primarily on the effects of automation on U.S. labor markets and gross domestic product growth. Economists, pundits, and policymakers alike have often gravitated toward macroeconomic indicators in broaching the topic. The Future of Artificial Intelligence Act, a bipartisan piece of legislation pending in the House and Senate, exemplifies this trend. The act would designate the Department of Commerce as the leading U.S. governmental body on artificial intelligence policy, mandating the department to prioritize nationalistic economic goals.

Other important objectives, such as fostering international development, would receive comparatively little attention. While artificial intelligence might bring tremendous benefits to developing countries, these technologies could also hinder their economic growth. As artificial intelligence improves, incentives to substitute rich-country capital for developing-country labor will grow. Traditional paths to affluence, which involve participating in international trade and moving up the value chain, may become infeasible as rungs in the economic ladder disappear. Stalled development would immiserate hundreds of millions overseas, and could exacerbate hot button domestic issues such as trade and immigration reform.

The economic sphere, though, is only one variable in a much larger equation. Foreign governments, for instance, have used artificial intelligence to amplify operations against the United States and can continue to do so. As the 2016 presidential election demonstrated, digital technologies enable outside actors to spread misinformation and erode public trust in democratic institutions. More advanced artificial intelligence might afford Russia and other would-be purveyors of fake news greater latitude in conducting destabilizing information warfare campaigns, and in launching devastating cyberattacks.

Even offline, artificial intelligence is poised to reconfigure, and perhaps intensify, geopolitical competition. Last year, Beijing unveiled a plan, followed by a detailed three-year roadmap, for China to become the global leader in artificial intelligence by 2030. The Chinese government intends, among other objectives, to incorporate artificial intelligence into its Belt and Road Initiative and to increase investment in autonomous weapons research and development. As Washington and Beijing compete for influence and technological primacy, arms races could become more likely and dangerous.

This is to say nothing of how China might shape international norms around artificial intelligence. A number of Chinese cities are piloting an invasive program that leverages massive data collection and analysis to exert Orwellian levels of control over civil life. China expert Bill Bishop describes the program, which entails using artificial intelligence for everything from punishing jaywalkers to predicting criminal behavior, as a “Leninist Panopticon” in the making. This level of disregard for privacy could become common across Asia and much of the rest of the world if the United States takes a backseat in shaping international rules and norms.

American policymakers, then, must look beyond U.S. borders in exploiting artificial intelligence’s opportunities and mitigating its risks. While U.S. innovation and economic growth are vital considerations, Congressional leaders cannot afford to overlook the numerous transnational issues accompanying technical progress. The globalization and digitalization of recent decades have created an interdependent world, one in which problems abroad have a nasty habit of causing trouble at home. Given this interconnectedness, Congress must grant any national commission on artificial intelligence a broad mandate that transcends narrow domestic and economic concerns.

Artificial intelligence will, in coming decades, transform how Americans live their lives. While the effects of this transformation are uncertain, optimism is not unwarranted. Positive outcomes, however, will require Congress to discard anachronistic notions of economic nationalism and adopt a more international approach to technology.

Kyle Evanoff is a research associate in international economics and U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Megan Roberts is associate director for international institutions and global governance at at the Council on Foreign Relations.