Tech leaders explore new public policy frontiers for AI

ChatGPT and other next-generation strains of artificial intelligence have revolutionized the tech world over the past year, and policymakers are ramping up their efforts to respond.

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, the Washington state Democrat who chairs the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, says the situation reminds her of the way the G.I. Bill opened up opportunities for veterans returning home from World War II.

“Now, instead of a G.I. Bill, we need an AI education bill,” she said today during a Future of AI Forum conducted in downtown Seattle. “We need a bill that says, how do we educate for the future, given the impacts of AI? How do we offer the training and the skill set so people can adapt now in the workplace?”

Cantwell’s forum provided an opportunity for AI startups in Washington state to show how their ventures could bring fresh innovations to a wide variety of fields — and provided an opportunity for leaders from government, academia, industry and labor to lay out their ideas for supporting and regulating AI.

“We tend to use the phrase ‘It’s Day One’ in the age of internet,” said Swami Sivasubramanian, vice president of database, analytics and machine learning at Amazon Web Services. “But in this phase, I would say it’s Day One, we just woke up and we haven’t even had a cup of coffee yet.”

Cosmic Space

Veep will put her ‘personal stamp’ on space policy

Vice President Kamala Harris’ role as the head of the National Space Council is prescribed by law, but that doesn’t mean she and her boss at the White House had to take it seriously.

The space council’s role as a forum for coordinating federal space policy goes back to the Eisenhower administration. But it languished in hibernation for a couple of decades until its revival by the Trump White House, with Vice President Mike Pence filling the statutory role of chairman. Under Pence’s leadership, the council conducted public hearings and drew up seven policy directives on matters ranging from moon exploration to nukes in space.

Today Harris confirmed in a tweet that she’ll keep the ball rolling during the Biden administration:

During a background briefing for reporters, senior administration officials said Harris won’t be a mere figurehead.

The vice president “intends to put her own personal stamp on the concept,” one official said. (The briefing was conducted under the condition that the senior officials would not be identified further.)

Cosmic Science

Joe Biden jumps into science policy with 5 questions

Between COVID-19 and the climate crisis, science policy matters led President Joe Biden’s to-do list for his first day at the White House.

The coronavirus pandemic, which has already taken more than 400,000 American lives and is killing thousands more daily, is clearly the biggest challenge, judging from Biden’s inaugural address.

“We are entering what may well be the toughest and deadliest period of the virus,” he said today. “We must set aside the politics and finally face this pandemic as one nation.”

But climate change also came in for a prominent mention: “A cry for survival comes from the planet itself — a cry that can’t be any more desperate or any more clear,” Biden said.

Public health and environmental issues also led the list of executive actions that Biden approved on his first day. Among the highlights:


Who’ll be the watchdog for AI technology?

AI policy panel
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.

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What mobile phone data can reveal about you

Image: Rwandans with phones
The mobile phone penetration rate in Rwanda is more than 70 percent. (Credit: Joshua Blumenstock)

Researchers have analyzed data about mobile phone use in Rwanda to figure out how wealthy a phone’s user is – and they say they might be able to do the same kind of analysis for any other country.

The study, published today in the journal Science, applies big-data models to look at much more than income. The Rwandan data, for example, could be massaged to predict which phone users owned a motorcycle or a TV.

Joshua Blumenstock, the study’s lead author and an information scientist at the University of Washington, is now working on a follow-up project to see how easily the computer models can be applied to places beyond Rwanda.

“In every country, we hypothesize that there’s a relationship between how people use their phone and how wealthy they are,” he said in a Science podcast. “The exact nature of that relationship is going to change from one country to another, and it might even change from one year to the next within a country. But fundamentally, you’d think that there are these relationships that exist.”

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