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) KhannaSanders endorses Young Turks founder Cenk Uygur for Katie Hill's former House seat Overnight Defense: House passes compromise defense bill | Turkey sanctions advance in Senate over Trump objections | Top general says military won't be 'raping, burning and pillaging' after Trump pardons House passes defense bill to establish Space Force, paid family leave for federal workers MORE (D-Calif.) and Brenda LawrenceBrenda Lulenar LawrenceHouse Democrat walks back remark favoring censure over impeachment Jane Fonda calls for protecting water resources at weekly DC climate protest DCCC adds senior staffers after summer departures 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 WydenSenators zero in on shadowy court at center of IG report Trump administration approves Medicaid work requirements in South Carolina Senate Republicans air complaints to Trump administration on trade deal MORE (D-Ore.) and Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerTrump neck and neck with top 2020 Democrats in Wisconsin: poll Booker says he will not make December debate stage White House makes push for paid family leave and child care reform 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 confirms Trump's nominee to lead FDA There's a lot to like about the Senate privacy bill, if it's not watered down Advocates hopeful dueling privacy bills can bridge partisan divide MORE (D-Hawaii) and Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntOn The Money: Lawmakers strike spending deal | US, China reach limited trade deal ahead of tariff deadline | Lighthizer fails to quell GOP angst over new NAFTA Lighthizer fails to quell GOP angst on trade deal Republicans consider skipping witnesses in Trump impeachment trial 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 HeinrichSenators want FERC to protect critical infrastructure from Huawei threats Senate reviews Interior, FERC nominees criticized on ethics This week: House to vote on Turkey sanctions bill 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 TrumpSenate gears up for battle over witnesses in impeachment trial Vulnerable Democrats tout legislative wins, not impeachment Trump appears to set personal record for tweets in a day 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.