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Lawmakers, tech set for clash over AI

Lawmakers, tech set for clash over AI
© Stefani Reynolds

Lawmakers in recent months have offered a slew of bills to oversee the use of artificial intelligence (AI) amid worries about the potential discriminatory effects of the technology.

Those efforts have been hailed by civil rights groups who say the government should provide more oversight of AI technology. But any legislation faces an uphill battle with tech companies eager to avoid more government regulation.

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“What we’ve seen from a lot of companies is that they’re trying to get out in front of it,” Jameson Spivack, a policy associate with Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy and Technology, told The Hill. “They’re recognizing popular sentiment is turning against them.”

Congress is paying more attention to the issue of technology and discrimination. Lawmakers in recent months have introduced first-of-their-kind bills on topics such as the use of facial recognition technology and safeguards to prevent biased algorithms.

Silicon Valley, though, is working overtime to make sure the industry has a seat at the table as those efforts advance.

Whether Congress and the tech industry can work together on crafting rules or whether they will be at odds remains to be seen.

“The internet industry is committed to working with policymakers and other stakeholders to ensure new technologies are not creating or reinforcing unfair bias,” Sean Perryman, the Internet Association’s director of diversity and inclusion policy, told The Hill in a statement.

The Internet Association, a tech industry trade group, represents companies at the forefront of AI including Microsoft, Amazon, Google and Facebook.

The Internet Association earlier this year supported a resolution introduced by Reps. Ro KhannaRohit (Ro) KhannaDozens of legal experts throw weight behind Supreme Court term limit bill Expiring benefits raise economic stakes of stalled stimulus talks Overnight Defense: Pentagon IG to audit use of COVID-19 funds on contractors | Dems optimistic on blocking Trump's Germany withdrawal | Obama slams Trump on foreign policy MORE (D-Calif.) and Brenda LawrenceBrenda Lulenar LawrenceHillicon Valley: FBI chief says Russia is trying to interfere in election to undermine Biden | Treasury Dept. sanctions Iranian government-backed hackers Lawmakers call for expanded AI role in education, business to remain competitive The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by The Air Line Pilots Association - Pence lauds Harris as 'experienced debater'; Trump, Biden diverge over debate prep MORE (D-Mich.), which called for the “ethical development” of artificial intelligence technology.

The resolution, which was light on specifics, called for the creation of AI ethics guidelines that would “empower women and underrepresented or marginalized populations” and offer “accountability and oversight for all automated decisionmaking.” It attracted endorsements from tech companies, including IBM and Facebook. 

Khanna, who represents Silicon Valley, told The Hill that he and Lawrence are now working to assemble a group of stakeholders in the AI ethics debate — including academics, civil rights advocates and tech companies — to develop a framework that will guide any legislation he introduces on the issue.

“Congress doesn’t have the expertise to address this within our own building,” Khanna said. “We need to go outside to the academics, to thinkers in this space, to people who really understand what is happening and have their expertise. Then we can debate the appropriate framework.”

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He predicted the process could take a year.

Lawrence told The Hill that she was surprised when some of the “major players” in the tech industry, including Facebook and Google, voiced support for the resolution. She said companies told her they didn’t “want to be surprised or accused of something” and told her that they support some form of “ethical guidelines.”

But as Lawrence and Khanna work with industry to assemble a group of AI experts, other members of Congress are barreling ahead with legislation around biased algorithms and facial recognition technology.

A bill introduced last week by a group of Democrats from both chambers, including Sens. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenPlaintiff and defendant from Obergefell v. Hodges unite to oppose Barrett's confirmation Senate Democrats call for ramped up Capitol coronavirus testing House Democrats slam FCC chairman over 'blatant attempt to help' Trump MORE (D-Ore.) and Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerDemocratic senators unveil bill to ban discrimination in financial services industry Obama endorses Espy in Mississippi Senate race Durbin says he will run for No. 2 spot if Dems win Senate majority MORE (D-N.J.), a 2020 presidential candidate, would require companies to review their computer algorithms for “unfair, biased or discriminatory” decisionmaking. The Federal Trade Commission would enforce and oversee those assessments.

The bill was introduced shortly after the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) charged Facebook with encouraging and enabling housing discrimination through its targeted advertising practices.

HUD said Facebook’s algorithms often deliver advertisements to certain demographic groups, sometimes resulting in discrimination against minorities or other protected groups when the ads tout opportunities in housing, employment and credit.

“Computers are increasingly involved in the most important decisions affecting Americans’ lives — whether or not someone can buy a home, get a job or even go to jail,” Wyden said in a statement. “But instead of eliminating bias, too often these algorithms depend on biased assumptions or data that can actually reinforce discrimination against women and people of color.”

Lawmakers have also increasingly called for regulations on facial recognition technology, which analyzes human faces for the purpose of identifying them. Last month, Sens. Brian SchatzBrian Emanuel SchatzSenate Democrats hold talkathon to protest Barrett's Supreme Court nomination Coordinated federal leadership is needed for recovery of US travel and tourism Senate Democrats call for ramped up Capitol coronavirus testing MORE (D-Hawaii) and Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntPower players play chess match on COVID-19 aid GOP to Trump: Focus on policy Low-flying helicopters to measure radiation levels in DC before inauguration MORE (R-Mo.) introduced a first-of-its-kind bill that would require third-party testing and human review of facial recognition technologies before they are made widely available.

Facial recognition technology offered by some of the country’s leading technology companies, including Amazon, has been found to misidentify minorities and women at higher rates. Both Microsoft and Amazon have offered their own frameworks for national legislation regulating the sensitive technology.

The scrutiny of AI’s potential to harm marginalized communities comes as Congress takes its first steps toward creating a national comprehensive privacy law.

“There is this bipartisan groundswell of support for regulating these companies and technologies because people are now realizing their potential negative impacts,” Spivack, of Georgetown Law, said.

A bipartisan group of senators last month announced the creation of the Senate AI Caucus, dedicated to developing “responsible policy” on AI.

“Part of the job of the AI Caucus will be to develop smart policy that balances AI’s risks and rewards while maintaining important ethical, safety, and privacy standards,” Sen. Martin HeinrichMartin Trevor HeinrichSenate Democrats demand White House fire controversial head of public lands agency Senate Democrats seek removal of controversial public lands head after nomination withdrawal Five takeaways from final Senate Intel Russia report MORE (D-N.M.) told The Hill in a statement. “We must work with the rest of the federal government, industry and academia to develop this technology responsibly, recognizing that AI is only as good as the data provided to it.”

Lawrence told The Hill that, as it stands, the tech industry is the “Wild West” and she believes there must be adequate regulations to keep up with changes.

But lawmakers seeking to regulate AI will have to contend with a number of competing pressures. The administration and companies are looking to promote AI technology. President TrumpDonald John TrumpFox News president, top anchors advised to quarantine after coronavirus exposure: report Six notable moments from Trump and Biden's '60 Minutes' interviews Biden on attacks on mental fitness: Trump thought '9/11 attack was 7/11 attack' MORE signed an executive order in February to boost AI amid worries that the U.S. is losing a technological race with China. Lawmakers must also contend with their own questions about the details of AI technology to craft effective legislation.

“I think that any legislation needs to recognize that while these technologies affect everyone, they disproportionately affect vulnerable people,” Spivack said.