This week, U.S. President Joe Biden spoke to the country about a need to restore the soul of America and reminded listeners of “what we owe our forebears, one another, and generations to follow.”
Biden said he chose to run for president in reaction to a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, South Carolina. On Wednesday, he became the first president to mention white supremacy in a presidential inauguration speech, calling for the defeat of domestic terrorism and a social hierarchy older than the United States. In his speech, Biden stressed virtues like tolerance, humility, empathy, and, above all, unity.
There was a prayerful moment of silence for 400,000 Americans lost to COVID-19 and the message that we must defeat the forces that divide us in order to make the U.S. a “leading force for good in the world.” It was, as the New York Times Daily podcast noted, not unlike a church sermon.
But the Biden administration enters office with one of the longest to-do lists in U.S. history. Urgent issues range from COVID-19 to economic recovery to addressing inequality wrought by America’s original sin of racism. Biden also follows his predecessor’s lack of executive leadership and a coup attempt. Among multiple crises the administration must tackle from the outset, major artificial intelligence issues are set to play out in the coming weeks and years.
Applying civil rights to tech policy
Democratic control of both houses of Congress means we could see new legislation to address a range of tech policy issues. Early signs indicate the Biden administration plans to handle enforcement of existing law and regulation very differently from the Trump administration, particularly when it comes to issues like algorithmic bias, according to FTC Commissioner Rebecca Slaughter.
“I think there’s a lot of unity on the Democratic side and a lot of consensus about the direction that we need to go,” Slaughter said as part of a Protocol panel conversation about tech and the first 100 days of the Biden administration. On Thursday, Biden appointed Slaughter acting chair of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). “For me, algorithmic bias is an economic justice issue. We see disparate outcomes coming out of algorithmic decision-making that disproportionately affect and harm Black and brown communities and affect their ability to participate equally in society. That’s something we need to address.”
Speaking as a commissioner, she said one of her priorities is centering enforcement on anti-racist practices and confronting unfair market practices that disproportionately impact people of color. This will include treating antitrust enforcement and unfair market practices as racial justice issues.
Brookings Institution senior fellow and Center for Technology Innovation director Nicol Turner Lee also spoke during the panel conversation. Without attention to issues like algorithmic bias or data privacy, Lee said, “we actually run the risk of going backward.” The question becomes, Lee added, what kind of policy and enforcement support the Biden administration will allocate to that aim.
“There’s no reason that you couldn’t start in this administration applying every existing civil rights statute to tech. Period. When you design a credit analysis tool that relies on algorithms, make sure it’s compliant with the Fair Credit Reporting Act. Going to design a housing tool? Make sure it complies with the Fair Housing Act. To me, that’s a simple start that actually had some traction in Congress,” Lee said.
Earlier this month, Biden appointed civil rights attorneys Vanita Gupta and Kristen Clarke as associate attorney general and assistant attorney general for civil rights, respectively. Both have a history of challenging algorithmic bias at companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter. In testimony and letters to Congress in recent years, Gupta has stressed that machine learning “must protect civil rights, prevent discrimination, and advance equal opportunity.”
Finally, last week Biden said he planned to elevate the position of science advisor, held by Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) head Dr. Eric Lander, to cabinet level. Dr. Alondra Nelson will act as OSTP deputy director for science and society. AI, she said in a ceremony with Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, is technology that can “reveal and reflect even more about the complex and sometimes dangerous social architecture that lies beneath the scientific progress that we pursue.”
“When we provide inputs to the algorithm; when we program the device; when we design, test, and research; we are making human choices, choices that bring our social world to bear in a new and powerful way,” she said.
In the first hours of his administration, Biden signed an executive order to advance racial equality that instructs the OSTP to participate in a newly formed working group tasked with disaggregating government data. This initiative is based in part on concerns that an inability to analyze such data impedes efforts to advance equity.
Confronting white supremacy in AI
The Biden administration faces a general lack of progress in addressing risks associated with AI deployment and recent events that seem to signal the collapse of AI ethics at Google. According to a 2020 McKinsey survey, business leaders are addressing 10 major risks associated with artificial intelligence at glacial rates that echo the lack of progress on diverse hiring in tech.
Interrogating the role of white supremacy in the recent insurrection seems an essential step toward safeguarding the future of democracy in the United States. But links to white supremacy have also been found in the AI industry, and the white default in the intelligence industry persists after a year of efforts to interrogate artificial whiteness and anti-Blackness in artificial intelligence.
Another example comes from Clearview AI, a company built on billions of images scraped from the internet without permission. Clearview AI CEO Hoan Ton-That says the company’s tech is currently used by thousands of police departments and, according to Gothamist reporting this week, more than 100 prosecutorial offices in the United States.
Ton-That said this week that as a person of mixed race he’s committed to “non-biased technology,” but Clearview AI has a history of ties with white supremacist groups and has sought controversial government contracts.
Clearview AI usage reportedly rose following the insurrection two weeks weeks ago. Policy analysts with a history of sponsoring legislation to regulate AI on human rights grounds warned VentureBeat earlier this month that use of facial recognition to find white supremacists involved with the insurrection could lead to the proliferation of technology that negatively impacts Black people.
Healing wounds and making history
In his inauguration speech Wednesday, Biden said “the U.S. will lead not only by the example of our power but by the power of our example.” We are now beginning to see what that example might look like.
The Biden administration may oversee increased government use of complex AI models. According to a study released roughly a year ago by Stanford and New York University, only 15% of AI used by federal agencies is considered highly sophisticated. The administration will also take part in upcoming talks about lethal autonomous weapons, a subject European politicians addressed this week. The final recommendations of the National Security Council on AI, a group appointed by Congress with commissions representing Big Tech executives, is due out later this year.
There’s also the need to, as one researcher put it, introduce legal intervention to provide redress and more definitively answer the question of who is held responsible when AI hurts people.
The ceremony in Washington, D.C. this week was not just notable for upholding the tradition of a peaceful transfer of power. Harris was the first woman in U.S. history to be sworn in as vice president. Hours later, she swore in Jon Ossoff (D-GA), the youngest senator in generations; Raphael Warnock (D-GA), the first Black man elected to the U.S. Senate by voters from a southern state; and Alex Padilla (D-CA), the first Latinx person to represent the state of California in the U.S. Senate.
The ceremony reinforced Biden’s commitment to a multiracial democracy where everyone is treated equally and a reestablishment of the rule of law. Part of keeping that promise — and, as Biden said, leading by example — will be addressing ways algorithmic decision-making systems and machine learning can harm people.
The desire for a more equitable and just society is also evident in Biden’s decision to decorate the Oval Office with busts of icons like Cesar Chavez, Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr., and Rosa Parks. His respect for science is represented by the inclusion of a moon rock collected by NASA and his decision to elevate the role of Presidential Science Advisor to a cabinet-level position.
The Biden administration’s handling of AI and its impact on society won’t just have the potential to affect how businesses, governments, and law enforcement adopt and use the technology in the United States. It will also determine whether the country has the moral credibility to lead others. This includes condemning the way China treats Muslim minority groups, an ongoing situation the outgoing and incoming presidential administrations have both called a genocide.
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Senior AI Staff Writer
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