How should artificial intelligence be governed?

How should artificial intelligence be governed?

The drumbeat for regulating artificial intelligence (AI) is growing louder. Earlier this week, Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google's parent company, Alphabet, became the latest high-profile Silicon Valley figure to call for governments to put guardrails around technologies that use huge amounts of (sometimes personal) data to teach computers how to identify faces, make decisions about mortgage applications, and myriad other tasks that previously relied on human brainpower.


"AI governance" was also a big topic of discussion at Davos this week. With big business lining up behind privacy and human-rights campaigners to call for rules for AI, it feels like the political ground is shifting.

But agreeing on the need for rules is one thing. Regulating a fuzzily-defined technology that has the potential to be used for everything from detecting breast cancer, to preventing traffic jams, to monitoring people's movements and even their emotions, will be a massive challenge.

Here are two arguments you're likely to hear more often as governments debate how to approach it:

Leave AI (mostly) alone: AI's enormous potential to benefit human health, the environment, and economic growth could be lost or delayed if the companies, researchers, and entrepreneurs working to roll out the technology end up stifled by onerous rules and regulations. Of course, governments should ensure that AI isn't used in ways that are unsafe or violate people's rights, but they should try to do it mainly by enforcing existing laws around privacy and product safety. They should encourage companies to adopt voluntary best practices around AI ethics, but they shouldn't over-regulate. This is the approach that the US is most likely to take.

AI needs its own special rules: Relying on under-enforced (or non-existent) digital privacy laws and trusting companies and public authorities to abide by voluntary ethics guidelines isn't enough. Years of light-touch regulation of digital technologies have already been disastrous for personal privacy. The potential harm to people or damage to democracy from biased data, shoddy programming, or misuse by companies and governments could be even higher without rules for AI. Also, we don't really know most of the ways AI will be used in the future, for good or for ill. To have any chance of keeping up, governments should try to create broad rules to ensure that whatever use it is put to, AI is developed and used safely and in ways that respect democratic principles and human rights. Some influential voices in Europe are in this camp.

There's plenty of room between these two poles. For example, governments could try to avoid overly broad rules while reserving the right to step in in narrower cases, like regulating the use of facial recognition in surveillance, say, or in sensitive sectors like finance or healthcare, where they see bigger risks if something were to go wrong.

This story is about to get a lot bigger. The EU is preparing to unveil its first big push for AI regulation, possibly as soon as next month. The Trump administration has already warned the Europeans not to impose tough new rules on Silicon Valley companies. China – the world's other emerging AI superpower – is also in the mix. Beijing's ambitious plans to harness AI to transform its economy, boost its military capabilities, and ensure the Communist Party's grip on power have contributed greatly to rising tensions between Washington and Beijing. But China is also working on its own approach to AI safety and ethics amid worries that other countries could get out ahead in setting the global agenda on regulation.

As with digital privacy, 5G data networks, and other high-tech fields, there is a risk that countries' competing priorities and intensifying geopolitical rivalries over technology will make it hard to find a common international approach.

A blue graphic using 1's and 0's to form an image of roads leading into a city

Governments, civil society and industry are beginning to understand the value of data to society in much the same way they considered the importance of thoroughfares 200 years ago. Just as these roads ushered in a new era of physical infrastructure that helped society thrive then, today we are beginning to understand the need to invest in modern approaches to our data infrastructure that will enhance economic growth and innovation, support individual empowerment and protect us from harm. Just as our physical infrastructure of roads and highways needs to be used appropriately, maintained and protected, so does our data infrastructure.

To maximize the benefits and minimize the harms of our data use, we need privacy regulations to serve as our global rules of the road that preserve our ability to use and share data across borders, supported by innovative tools and solutions that protect privacy and empower individuals. As we reframe our focus to support data use, let’s examine the regulatory approaches that have been working, and develop new approaches where needed to enable the responsible use and sharing of data. To read more about Microsoft’s approach to protecting data infrastructure, visit Microsoft on the Issues.

Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group, our parent company, has opened this year’s GZERO Summit with a provocative speech on the near future of international politics. Here are the highlights.

Are the United States and China now locked in a new form of Cold War? Their governments behave as if they are.

But Bremmer isn’t buying it. He’s not predicting that Washington and Beijing will become more cooperative with one another, but that both will be too preoccupied with historic challenges at home in coming years to wage a full-time international struggle.

In Washington, the main worry will be for America’s broken political system. US politics is becoming even more tribalized as TV and online media target politically like-minded consumers with hyperpartisan news coverage. Widening wealth inequality fuels the fire by separating white and non-white, urban and rural, and the more educated from the less educated. Deepening public mistrust of political institutions will fuel future fights over the legitimacy of US elections.

Beijing’s burden centers on how to extend decades of economic gains while moving away from a growth model that no longer works, as higher wages in China and more automation in factories elsewhere cut deeply into China’s manufacturing advantages. China is still a middle-income country. To reach the prosperity level of wealthy nations, it needs 6-7 percent growth for another 20 years.

But China must spend less in coming years to keep giant, deeply indebted companies afloat and more to care for the largest population of elderly people in history. And its leaders must accomplish this at a time when China’s people expect ever-rising levels of prosperity from their government.

The domestic distraction of US and Chinese leaders will create new opportunities for European, Japanese, Canadian, Indian and other political and business leaders to contribute toward international problem-solving. But other governments aren’t the only new players stepping into this power vacuum.

Technology companies are fast becoming important geopolitical actors. We’re entering a world in which economic winners and losers, election outcomes, and national security will depend on choices made by both governments and by the world’s big tech firms.

Bremmer calls this a “techno-polar moment.”

The idea is simple but transformative: Just as governments make the laws that determine what can happen in the physical world, tech companies have final authority in a digital world that’s becoming both more expansive and more immersive.

The biggest tech companies will establish sovereignty by defining the digital space and its boundaries, the algorithms that determine what happens within that space, and the “terms and conditions” that decide who gets to operate in this world.

For skeptics, Bremmer poses this question: Who will do more to influence the outcome of next year’s US midterm congressional elections: The president of the United States or the CEO of Meta? According to Bremmer, since the vote will be influenced by both real-world rules changes and the online flow of information, the answer isn’t obvious.

How will tech companies try to expand their power? Some will behave as “globalists” by trying to reach consumers and influence politics everywhere.

Others will act as “national champions” by aligning with individual governments and their goals.

Still, others will behave as “techno-utopians,” companies that expect historical forces and tech innovations to help them replace governments in important ways.

The relative success of these models over the next decade will decide how government and tech companies share power over the longer-term and whether democracy or autocracy will have the upper hand.

What’s to be done? “Think adaptation, not surrender,” says Bremmer. Steps can be taken to limit the sometimes negative influence of tech companies in the political lives of democracies. But just as climate change can be limited but not avoided, so we must understand and adapt to a world in which governments and tech companies compete for influence over our lives.

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How is China able to control their tech giants without suppressing innovation?

For Ian Bremmer, one important reason is that there's a big difference between Jack Ma questioning Chinese regulators and Elon Musk doing the same to the SEC.

"In the United States you've got fanboys if you do that; in China, they cut you down," Bremmer told CNN anchor Julia Chatterley in an interview following his annual State of the World Speech.

Still, he says China knows it cannot kill its private sector because it needs to keep growing and competing with American tech firms.

So, who's winning the global battle for tech primacy?

Right now, Bremmer believes the US and China are at tech parity — thanks to their tech giants.

"When we're talking about tech supremacy, we can't just talk about governments anymore."

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