Latest from MIT Tech Review – The White House just unveiled a new AI Bill of Rights

The White House wants Americans to know: The age of AI accountability is coming. 

US President Biden has today unveiled a new AI Bill of Rights, which outlines five protections Americans should have in the AI age. 

Biden has called for stronger privacy protections and for tech companies to stop collecting data in the past. But the US — home to some of the world’s biggest tech and AI companies — has so far been one of the only Western nations without clear guidance on how to protect its citizens against AI harms. 

Today’s announcement is the White House’s vision of how the US government as well as technology companies and citizens should work together to hold AI accountable. However, critics say the blueprint lacks teeth, and the US needs even tougher regulation around AI.

In September, the administration announced core principles for tech accountability and reform, such as stopping discriminatory algorithmic decision-making, promoting competition in the technology sector and providing federal protections for privacy.

The AI Bill of Rights, the vision for which was first introduced a year ago by the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), a US government department that advises the President on science and technology, is a blueprint for how to achieve those goals. It provides practical guidance to government agencies, and a call to action for technology companies, researchers, and civil society to build these protections. 

“These technologies are causing real harms in the lives of Americans harms that run counter to our core democratic values, including the fundamental right to privacy, freedom from discrimination and our basic dignity,” a senior administration official told reporters at a press conference.

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AI is a powerful technology that is transforming our societies. It also has the potential to cause serious harm, which often disproportionately affects minorities. Facial recognition technologies used in policing and algorithms that allocate benefits are not as accurate on ethnic minorities, for example. 

The Bill of Rights aims to redress that balance. It says that Americans should be protected from unsafe or ineffective systems; should not face discrimination by algorithms and systems should be used as designed in an equitable way; should be protected from abusive data practices through built-in protections and have agency over their data. Citizens should also know that an automated system is being used on them and understand how it contributes to outcomes. Finally, people should always be able to opt out of AI systems for a human alternative and have access to remedies to problems. 

“We want to make sure that we are protecting people from the worst harms of this technology, no matter the specific underlying technological process used,” a second senior administration official said. 

The OSTP’s AI Bill of Rights is “impressive,” says Marc Rotenberg, who heads the Center for AI and Digital Policy, a nonprofit that tracks AI policy.

“This is clearly a starting point. That doesn’t end the discussion over how the US implements human-centric and trustworthy AI,” he says.” But it is a very good starting point to move the US to a place where it can carry forward on that commitment.”

Willmary Escoto, US policy analyst for digital rights group Access Now says the guidelines skillfully highlight the “importance of data minimization while naming and addressing the diverse harms people experience from other AI-enabled technologies, like emotion recognition.”

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“The AI Bill of Rights could have a monumental impact on fundamental civil liberties for Black and Latino people across the nation,” says Escoto.

The tech sector welcomed the White House’s acknowledgement that AI can also be used for good uses. 

Matt Schruers, who is the president of tech lobby CCIA, which counts companies including Google, Amazon, and Uber as its members, says he appreciates the Administration’s “direction that government agencies should lead by example in developing AI ethics principles, avoiding discrmination, and developing a risk management framework for government technologists.”

Shaundra Watson, the policy director for AI at tech lobby BSA, whose members include Microsoft and IBM, says she welcomes the document’s approach that focuses on risks, and impact assessments. “It will be important to ensure that these principles are applied in a manner that increases protections and reliability in practice,” Watson says. 

While the EU is pressing on regulations that aim to prevent AI harms and hold companies accountable for harmful AI tech, and has a strict data protection regime, the US has been loath to introduce new regulations. 

But while the new protections echo those introduced in the EU, the new Bill of Rights is non-binding and does not constitute US government policy, as the OSTP cannot enact law. It will be up to lawmakers to propose new bills. 

Russell Wald, director of policy for the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered AI, says the document lacks teeth or details of enforcement. 

“It is disheartening to see the lack of coherent federal policy to tackle desperately needed challenges posed by AI, such as federally-coordinated monitoring, auditing, and reviewing actions to mitigate the risks and harm brought by deployed or open-source foundation models,” he says.

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Rotenberg says he’d like to see the US have similar regulations like the EU’s AI Act, which is an upcoming law that aims to prevent AI harms by adding extra checks and balances to AI uses that have the most potential to cause harm to humans. 

“We’d like to see some clear prohibitions on AI deployments that have been most controversial, which include, for example, the use of facial recognition for mass surveillance,” he says. 

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