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) KhannaSome in Congress want to keep sending our troops to Afghanistan House panel votes to limit Trump's Germany withdrawal It's time to eliminate land-based nuclear missiles MORE (D-Calif.) and Brenda LawrenceBrenda Lulenar LawrenceFormer Surgeon General Vivek Murthy says public health threat of loneliness compounded by COVID-19; Trump says task force will 'evolve' Black Caucus moves to front and center in COVID fight House reverses, but Senate to return despite COVID threat 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 WydenTrump administration to impose tariffs on French products in response to digital tax Mnuchin: Next stimulus bill must cap jobless benefits at 100 percent of previous income Congress must act now to fix a Social Security COVID-19 glitch and expand, not cut, benefits MORE (D-Ore.) and Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerIn politics, as in baseball, it ain't over till it's over Democrats blast Trump for commuting Roger Stone: 'The most corrupt president in history' Koch-backed group urges Senate to oppose 'bailouts' of states in new ads 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 SchatzCensus workers prepare to go door-knocking in pandemic Data shows seven Senate Democrats have majority non-white staffs Overnight Defense: Lawmakers demand answers on reported Russian bounties for US troops deaths in Afghanistan | Defense bill amendments target Germany withdrawal, Pentagon program giving weapons to police MORE (D-Hawaii) and Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntHillicon Valley: Facebook considers political ad ban | Senators raise concerns over civil rights audit | Amazon reverses on telling workers to delete TikTok Advocacy groups pressure Senate to reconvene and boost election funding GOP senators voice confidence over uphill Senate battle 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 HeinrichThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: Rep. Rodney Davis says most important thing White House can do on COVID-19 is give consistent messaging; US new cases surpass 50k for first time Overnight Defense: Navy won't reinstate fired captain | Dems probe use of federal officers in DC | Air Force appoints woman as top noncommissioned officer Dems request watchdog probe use of federal law enforcement in DC during Floyd protests 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 TrumpWayfair refutes QAnon-like conspiracy theory that it's trafficking children Stone rails against US justice system in first TV interview since Trump commuted his sentence Federal appeals court rules Trump admin can't withhold federal grants from California sanctuary cities 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.