President Barack Obama sees the government playing a role in the development of AI. But not too big a role.
In an interview with WIRED Editor-in-Chief Scott Dadich and MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito, President Obama said the government should facilitate a range of research in artificial intelligence. “The way I’ve been thinking about the regulatory structure as AI emerges is that, early in a technology, a thousand flowers should bloom,” he says. “The government should add a relatively light touch, investing heavily in research and making sure there’s a conversation between basic research and applied research.”
That means the government should help provide a path for getting AI into the real world. And once this tech arrives, he says, lawmakers must take a larger role. “As technologies emerge and mature, then figuring out how they get incorporated into existing regulatory structures becomes a tougher problem, and the government needs to be involved a little bit more–not always to force the new technology into the square peg that exists but to make sure the regulations reflect a broad base set of values,” he says. “Otherwise, we may find that it’s disadvantaging certain people or certain groups.” Translation: Make sure that AI doesn’t damage the well-being of low-wage, low-skilled workers, as Obama said later in the conversation.
President Obama doesn’t want to get in the way of the big AI research operations inside places like Google and Facebook. But he does aim to foster more research outside these companies. That’s the aim of Preparing for the Future Artificial Intelligence, a plan released today by the White House. “Part of the problem that we’ve seen is that our general commitment as a society to basic research has diminished. Our confidence in collective action has been chipped away, partly because of ideology and rhetoric,” he says. What we need, he explains, is a return to days of the US space program. “The analogy that we still use when it comes to a great technology achievement, even 50 years later, is a moonshot.”
It’s an over-used term, for sure. The idea of a moonshot–an expensive, national, highly focused research effort–comes up in the worlds of self-driving cars, delivery drones, virtual reality systems, data-driven health care programs, and other ambitious Silicon Valley endeavors. But Apollo was backed by a government program with a budget of half a percent of the gross domestic product. The president isn’t proposing that, but rather a robust partnership that includes both private research and some amount of government funding. “Part of what we’re gonna have to understand is that if we want the values of a diverse community represented in these breakthrough technologies, then government funding has to be a part of it,” he says.
No, he’s not worried about self-aware robots killing off humanity, Terminator style–at least not yet. “My impression,” the president says, “is that we’re still a reasonably long way away from that.” But he does worry about more immediate issues in the wake of Google building a machine that can beat the best humans at the ancient game of Go. Can someone build an algorithm that learns to maximize profits on the New York Stock Exchange and undermine the integrity of the financial markets? Or one that can figure out the government’s nuclear codes? “I think my directive to my national security team is: Don’t worry as much yet about machines taking over the world. Worry about the capacity of either non-state actors or hostile actors to penetrate systems,” he says. “It just means that we’re gonna have to be better, because those who might deploy these systems are going to be a lot better now.”
What really worries the president, though, is that AI could eliminate some of the world’s wonderful randomness. “Part of what makes us human are the kinks. They’re the mutations, the outliers, the flaws that create art or the new invention, right?” he says. “We have to assume that if a system is perfect, then it’s static. And part of what makes us who we are, and part of what makes us alive, is that we’re dynamic and we’re surprised. One of the challenges that we’ll have to think about is where and when is it appropriate for us to have things work exactly the way they’re supposed to, without surprises.”
The good news is that some tech organizations are already thinking across these same lines. Think: The Partnership on AI coalition, and the Elon Musk backed OpenAI. This is exactly the kind of open discussion and collaboration President Obama hopes to foster, citing the White House’s precision medicine program as a model. It makes data available to anyone, not just a few big research institutions.
Organizations like the Partnership on AI and OpenAI must ultimately answer to the private companies that fund them. The government could put a lot more money into the research ecosystem that isn’t tied to, say, better ad targeting. Just how much funding are we talking about? Well, about a billion dollars goes into AI research each year. But the President believes this will rise, even if it never quite reaches the amount of money pumped into the Apollo program, which, he points out, would be $80 billion a year in today’s dollars.
UPDATE 10/12/16 9:11am: This story has been updated to clarify that the president was not calling for an $80 billion moonshot to fund AI research.
UPDATE 10/13/16 12:47 pm ET: This story has been updated for further clarification.