New US AI principles urge light-touch approach to regulation

By on 14/01/2020 | Updated on 24/09/2020
The Trump administration wants to avoid regulatory actions that “needlessly hamper AI innovation and growth”. (Image courtesy: Skeeze/Pixabay).

The White House has proposed a set of principles that aim to prevent US government agencies from “over-regulating” private sector development of artificial intelligence (AI) and stifling innovation. It has called on other countries to adopt a similarly light-touch approach.

The memorandum, issued by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), advises agencies to “consider ways to reduce barriers to the use of AI technologies in order to promote their innovative application while protecting civil liberties, privacy, American values, and United States economic and national security”.

It outlines 10 principles agencies should take into consideration when working up regulatory and non-regulatory approaches to AI, arguing that any action should not “needlessly hamper AI innovation and growth”.

The document says that any precaution that “holds AI systems to such an impossibly high standard that society cannot enjoy their benefits” should be avoided, and that fostering innovation and growth through “forbearing from new regulations may be appropriate”.

In an accompanying fact sheet, the White House says federal agencies should “conduct risk assessment and cost-benefit analyses prior to any regulatory action on AI, with a focus on establishing flexible frameworks rather than one-size-fits-all regulation”.

It also calls on Europe and its allies to “avoid heavy handed innovation-killing models”. The best way to counter authoritarian uses of AI, it argues, “is to make sure America and our international partners remain the global hubs of innovation”.

The 10 principles

The memo sets out 10 principles that agencies should take into consideration when forming regulatory and non-regulatory approaches to the design, development, deployment and operation of AI applications. Approaches should promote reliable, robust and trustworthy AI applications; enable citizens to participate in the rulemaking process; leverage scientific and technical information and processes; and be based on consistent risk assessment and risk management.

Agencies should also take flexible approaches to regulation; “carefully consider” the societal costs, benefits and distributional effects before considering regulation; promote fairness and ensure AI is not discriminatory; examine when disclosure and transparency around the use of AI might be necessary; and promote the development of AI systems that are safe, secure and operate as intended.

Agencies should “coordinate with each other to share experiences and to ensure consistency and predictability of AI-related policies,” it says, creating a “coherent and whole-of-government approach”.

The memo also outlines non-regulatory approaches that could govern AI, including sector-specific policy guidance or frameworks, pilot programmes and experiments, and voluntary consensus standards.

According to the memo, the principles apply to so-called “narrow” or “weak” AI: near-term solutions founded upon data analytics. “AI that may exhibit sentience or consciousness, can be applied to a wide variety of cross-domain activities and perform at the level of, or better than a human agent… are beyond the scope of this memorandum,” it says.

Facial recognition bans

Some US states and cities have raised concerns about AI applications, particularly facial recognition, which many see as a threat to civil liberties. In September, California’s legislature passed a three-year ban on state and local law enforcement using facial recognition-enabled body cameras. Cities including Somerville, Massachusetts, have enforced a similar ban.

According to administration officials, the OMB hopes its 10 principles will avoid this kind of “overregulation”.

“When states or localities make decisions like banning facial recognition across the board, you end up in tricky situations where civil servants may be breaking the law when they try and unlock their government-issued phone,” an administration official said. “So we want to avoid situations where we’re outright banning new technologies and rather creating a robust regulatory framework which allows for these technologies to thrive in our country.”

The memo is open for public comment for 60 days, after which a final version will be issued.

All agency AI regulations will need approval from the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs before they can be implemented.

Last year, the European Commission’s High-Level Expert Group on Artificial Intelligence issued a set of ethical guidelines, and European Union leaders are considering regulatory action. Other countries to have released AI principles and standards governing either private sector development of AI or government use of the technology include Canada, Australia and New Zealand.  

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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