Biden plan puts teeth into US effort to harness, promote AI, but critics say more work is needed

Supporters argue the order puts the force of law behind voluntary commitments White House already had from AI companies, while critics argue it's too complex to effectively execute and could have chilling effect on AI investment
Joe Biden, Sept. 22, 2023, Washington, D.C.

President Biden's recent executive order on artificial intelligence is being consider a major step toward the country's efforts to balancing the benefits of the revolutionary technology while curbing some of its risks. But critics also point out the U.S. has been slow to harness the technology on the global stage, with China having taken its first steps roughly five years ago. 

"This Executive Order represents a significant contribution to the subject of accountability in how AI is developed and deployed across organizations," the international professional services group EY, or Ernst & Young, said after the White House announced the executive order in late October.

"Given the breadth of recommendations and actions provided, it is likely to have an effect on organizations across all sectors of the economy, from the most mature AI implementers to first-time adopters."

Others supporters argue the order puts the force of law behind voluntary commitments the White House already had from AI companies and that the Biden plan had the luxury of seeing and learning from the missteps of other major players.

The White House also made clear in the 20,000-word order – which relies heavily on the tenets of transparency, competition, consumer protection, privacy, and oversight – the administration intends to enforce existing laws on the matter and enact new ones.

"The Federal Government will enforce existing consumer protection laws and principles and enact appropriate safeguards against fraud, unintended bias, discrimination, infringements on privacy, and other harms from AI," the order reads. 

It also makes clear the government is especially concerned about such "critical fields" as healthcare and financial services as well as the potential for AI mistakes or misuse to harm patients, cost consumers, and jeopardize Americans' safety and rights – while at the same time promoting the responsible uses of the technology to improve the quality of goods and services and lower their prices.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce took particular issue with the part, or parts, of the Oct. 30 order that direct the secretary of Commerce, in coordination with the secretaries of Energy and Homeland Security and the leaders of other relevant agencies, to establish within 270 days guidelines and best practices for "developing and deploying safe, secure, and trustworthy AI systems."

Tom Quaadman, executive vice president of the chamber’s Technology Engagement Center, said it's imperative for the U.S. to lead in such efforts amid "fierce" competitive with China. However, he also said, “Short, overlapping timelines for agency-required action endangers necessary stakeholder input, thereby creating conditions for ill-informed rule-making and degrading intra-government cooperation.” 

NetChoice, an advocacy group that represents major AI companies such as Amazon, Google and Meta, put the matter in perhaps more plain-stated terms.

“This order puts any investment in AI at risk of being shut down at the whims of government bureaucrats," said Carl Szabo, the group's vice president and general counsel.

The executive order also comes months after the European Union finalized its own artificial intelligence regulations.

What does the lag mean for the U.S.? One difference is based on the philosophies from each of the three economies – China, the E.U. and the United States.

In the strictest sense, artificial technology is not new.

The notion of using computing power to process huge quantities of information to reach new conclusions dates back to at least Alan Turing and the “Enigma Code” during World War II. But with the exponential increase in computing power, AI is now coming to unpredictable conclusions and is beginning to evolve without human control and perhaps focused on its own gains. 

Worries today range from it being used for misinformation in elections or commerce and violating civil rights to widening the gap between the rich and the poor and creating widespread job losses through automation. 

The EU’s AI strategy is focused largely on protecting workers, residents, and companies from potential abuses, though responses between countries vary.

In Italy, for example, the government is spending money on retraining workers in fields threatened by artificial intelligence, while in Germany is striving to become a European hub working on advances in AI technologies. Earlier this month, France and Germany said AI shouldn’t be regulated in ways that didn’t have a defined purpose

In China, the focus is on leveraging AI-related technologies to gain a competitive advantage. The country has spent more than any other on developing the sector – including billions in investments from U.S. investors

The Biden order appears focused on trying to do some of both, setting up a series of safeguards along with incentives. To various degrees, it sets up levels of cooperation with the Europeans and the Chinese.

If it seems confusing that’s because it is. The consensus is that AI technologies are evolving too fast for government regulations to do more than make educated guesses about what will prove to be the best balance between the risks and rewards represented by AI tools. 

Among the major think-tanks following developments closely, early reviews of the order are predictably mixed. 

The Atlantic Council, for example, said the order was a good first step, but one that lacks the enforcement of European Union rules and something that will require significant follow-up.

Brookings identified a range of potential pitfalls where the executive order falls short, including socioeconomic issues, criminal justice, and privacy.

And the Heritage Foundation, ahead of the order's release, said Biden cooperation vison “would only empower the Chinese Communist Party to write the rules of the road for AI.”