The "it" is artificial intelligence, a technology that teaches machines to recognise complex patterns and make decisions based on them, much like humans do. While the promised benefits of the technology are profound, the downsides could be damaging, even dangerous.
Last year police in New Delhi, for example, traced 2,930 missing children in four days by using an experimental facial recognition technology that identified them by examining a database of 45,000 kids living in shelters and homes. Yet a facial recognition tool developed by Amazon and tested by the American Civil Liberties Union in 2018 incorrectly identified 28 members of Congress as having been arrested for a crime, disproportionately picking out African American lawmakers, including civil rights icon John Lewis.
Significant advances in computers' ability to recognise visual patterns and human languages, including voice and text recognition, and to learn without supervision have brought machines closer to achieving cognitive tasks once reserved for humans. Vast quantities of data held privately and by governments are the necessary "food" that computers must digest to learn the new skills.
Lawmakers and regulators still grappling with the downsides of the Internet and social media era – such as loss of privacy, criminal hacking and data breaches – are now trying to balance the promises and perils of artificial intelligence. Industry groups, lobbyists and unions are angling to shape the debate over regulations affecting technologies that could one day bring more job losses because of increased automation. Civil rights groups and some technologists are calling for greater oversight to prevent bias and discriminatory practices.
Determining the way forward is also complicated because artificial intelligence has emerged almost organically from existing technology and data, unhampered by restrictions on privacy and use, said Jason Schultz, a law professor at New York University who also oversees law and policy for NYU's AI Now Institute.
"We are now trying to figure out whether the scaffolding we have for the Internet era is sufficient for AI or do we need a whole new foundation," he said.
Northwell Health, New York state's largest health care provider, for example, uses Amazon's Echo voice-activated device to assist hospital patients with queries on everything from medications to music. Typical Echo devices store recordings of user requests on Amazon servers, but Northwell uses its own servers to comply with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, the landmark law that safeguards patient information.
"But is that enough or do we need new regulations?" Schulz asked.
Members of Congress are waking up to the potential dangers of widespread use of AI technologies. They have drafted bills that would not only require more transparency and accountability over these automated systems, but also allow users to withhold certain information from the large data sets that drive artificial intelligence.
"It's a fundamental way in which decisions are made now – algorithms and computers," said Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who is co-sponsoring a bill dubbed the Algorithmic Accountability Act, introduced in April. "And it seems to me that there's not much transparency, not much disclosure, and that's what we sought to do in our bill."
The bill would require the Federal Trade Commission to prepare rules requiring companies to test their AI-powered systems for accuracy, fairness, bias, discrimination, privacy and security, and to correct errors if they find them. The bill is backed by Senator Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat running for president, and New York Democratic Rep. Yvette D. Clarke.
When introducing the legislation, Booker described his African American parents' experience with "real estate steering" in 1969, when agents coaxed black couples away from some neighbourhoods.
While such practices have been outlawed, opaque automated advertising systems driven by algorithms could perpetuate discrimination and avoid scrutiny, he said.
Tech-savvy lawmakers say Congress must be better educated before passing legislation addressing artificial intelligence to avoid repeating the failures made with earlier Internet technologies.
California Democrat Ro Khanna, a member of the Congressional Artificial Intelligence Caucus whose district includes part of Silicon Valley, said he's putting together a working group of economists, lawyers, academics and others to help lawmakers draft legislation.
"That may allow us to get ahead of the curve when it comes to AI and preventing misuse of AI in a way that we weren't ahead of the curve on social media," said Khanna, a national co-chairman of Vermont independent Senator Bernie Sanders' bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.
The AI Caucus is still mostly a digital forum that has yet to meet in person, said Rep. Andre Carson, an Indiana Democrat who is part of the group. The goal of the caucus is not to turn lawmakers into tech wizards but to get them up to speed on key issues, he said.
As a "Star Wars" fan who also grew up watching the TV series "Knight Rider," which featured a souped-up Pontiac Trans Am that could talk and help fight injustices, Carson said he's both excited and concerned about the possibilities for AI.
Technologies that could enable the FBI and other law enforcement agencies to target criminals and potential terrorists could as easily be used by adversaries to target voters and whip up fear, Carson said. "Whatever is created for good can be used for evil purposes," he said.
Regardless of the complexities of the technology and the slow learning curve lawmakers face, lobbyists are on top of the technology on behalf of their clients and have ramped up their outreach to lawmakers over AI.
In 2015, Carnegie Mellon University was the lone organisation to disclose "artificial intelligence" as a federal lobbying issue, according to quarterly reports filed with Congress. In the first months of this year, in contrast, nearly 100 interests have identified it, a signal that K Street sees it as an area of growth.
Washington's largest lobbying practice at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld offers one example. Earlier this year the firm hired former Rep. Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican who left at the conclusion of the 115th Congress after serving as chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. Smith and others at the firm have been pitching existing and potential clients about artificial intelligence.
Akin Gump held a roundtable discussion with lawmakers in the AI caucus plus outside stakeholders. Smith predicts a lot of activity this year, with multiple bills touching AI already introduced.
"I think the government is also rightly concerned about privacy but equally concerned about the misuse of AI, malicious use," Smith said. "Capitol Hill, Congress, the House and Senate, are just sort of trying to feel their way forward. I think they're really just at the beginning of information gathering and the self-education process." – CQ-Roll Call/dpa
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