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Seattle University’s Tracy Kosa, the University of Maryland’s Ben Shneiderman and Rice University’s Moshe Vardi take questions during an AI policy workshop at the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, moderated by AI2 CEO Oren Etzioni. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Do we need a National Algorithm Safety Board? How about licensing the software developers who work on critical artificial intelligence platforms? Who should take the lead when it comes to regulating AI? Or does AI need regulation at all?

The future of AI and automation, and the policies governing how far those technologies go, took center stage today during a policy workshop presented by Seattle’s Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, or AI2. And the experts who spoke agreed on at least one thing: Something needs to be done, policy-wise.

“Technology is driving the future — the question is, who is doing the steering?” said Moshe Vardi, a Rice University professor who focuses on computational engineering and the social impact of automation.

Artificial intelligence is already sparking paradigm shifts in the regulatory sphere: For example, when a Tesla car owner was killed in a 2016 highway collision, the National Transportation Safety Board took a critical look at the company’s self-driving software. (And there have been other such accidents for the NTSB to investigate since then.)

The NTSB, which is an independent agency funded directly by Congress, may be a useful model for a future federal AI watchdog, said Ben Shneiderman, a computer science professor at the University of Maryland at College Park. Just as the NTSB determines where things go wrong in the nation’s transportation system, independent safety experts operating under a federal mandate could analyze algorithmic failures and recommend remedies.

One of the prerequisites for such a system would be the ability to follow an audit trail. “A flight data recorder for every robot, a flight data recorder for every algorithm,” Shneiderman said.

He acknowledged that a National Algorithm Safety Board may not work exactly like the NTSB. It may take the form of a “SWAT team” that’s savvy about algorithms and joins in investigations conducted by other agencies, in sectors ranging from health care to highway safety to financial markets and consumer protection.

Ben Shneiderman
Ben Shneiderman, a computer science professor at the University of Maryland at College Park, says the National Transportation Safety Board could provide a model for regulatory oversight of algorithms that have significant societal impact. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle))

What about the flood of disinformation and fakery that AI could enable? That might conceivably fall under the purview of the Federal Communications Commission — if it weren’t for the fact that a provision in the 1996 Communications Decency Act, known as Section 230, absolves platforms like Facebook (and, say, your internet service provider) from responsibility for the content that’s transmitted.

“Maybe we need a way to just change [Section] 230, or maybe we need a fresh interpretation,” Shneiderman said.

Ryan Calo, a law professor at the University of Washington who focuses on AI policy, noted that the Trump administration isn’t likely to go along with increased oversight of the tech industry. But he said state and local governments could play a key role in overseeing potentially controversial uses of AI.

Seattle, for example, has an municipal ordinance that requires agencies to take a hard look at surveillance technologies before they’re approved for use. Another leader in the field is New York City, which has set up a municipal task force to monitor how algorithms are being used.

Determining the lines of responsibility, accountability and liability will be essential. Tracy Kosa, an adjunct professor of law and business at Seattle University, went so far as to suggest that software developers should be subject to professional licensing, just like doctors and lawyers.

“The goal isn’t to change what’s happening with technology, it’s about changing the people who are building it, the same way that the Hippocratic Oath changed the way medicine was practiced.” she said.

The issues laid out today sparked a lot of buzz among the software developers and researchers at the workshop, but Shneiderman bemoaned the fact that such issues haven’t yet gained a lot traction in D.C. policy circles. That may soon change, however, due to AI’s rapid rise.

“It’s time to grow up and say who does what by when,” Shneiderman said.

Odds and ends from the workshop:

  • Vardi noted that there’s been a lot of talk about ethical practices in AI, but he worried that focusing on ethics was “almost a ruse” on the part of the tech industry. “If we talk about ethics, we don’t have to talk about regulation,” he explained.
  • Calo worried about references to an “AI race” or use of the term “American AI” by the White House. “This is not only poisonous and factually ridiculous … it leads to bad policy choices,” Calo said. Such rhetoric fails to recognize the international character of the AI research community, he said.
  • Speaking of words, Shneiderman said the way that AI is described can make a big difference in public acceptance. For example, terms such as “Autopilot” and “self-driving cars” may raise unrealistic expectations, while terms such as “adaptive cruise control” and “active parking assist” make it clear that human drivers are still in charge.
  • Over the course of the day, the speakers provided a mini-reading list on AI policy issues: “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism” by Shoshana Zuboff; “Weapons of Math Destruction” by Cathy O’Neil; “Ethically Aligned Design,” a white paper distributed by IEEE; and “Normal Accidents,” an oldie but goodie by Charles Perrow.
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