Tech

Pressured by Biden, A.I. Companies Agree to Guardrails on New Tools

Amazon, Google and Meta are among the companies that announced the guidelines as they race to outdo each other with versions of artificial intelligence.

By Michael D. Shear, Cecilia Kang and David E. Sanger

Michael D. Shear and Cecilia Kang reported from Washington. David E. Sanger reported from Aspen, Colo.

 

July 21, 2023

Seven leading A.I. companies in the United States have agreed to voluntary safeguards on the technology’s development, the White House announced on Friday, pledging to manage the risks of the new tools even as they compete over the potential of artificial intelligence.

 

The seven companies — Amazon, Anthropic, Google, Inflection, Meta, Microsoft and OpenAI — formally made their commitment to new standards for safety, security and trust at a meeting with President Biden at the White House on Friday afternoon.

 

“We must be cleareyed and vigilant about the threats emerging from emerging technologies that can pose — don’t have to but can pose — to our democracy and our values,” Mr. Biden said in brief remarks from the Roosevelt Room at the White House.

 

“This is a serious responsibility; we have to get it right,” he said, flanked by the executives from the companies. “And there’s enormous, enormous potential upside as well.”

The announcement comes as the companies are racing to outdo each other with versions of A.I. that offer powerful new ways to create text, photos, music and video without human input. But the technological leaps have prompted fears about the spread of disinformation and dire warnings of a “risk of extinction” as artificial intelligence becomes more sophisticated and humanlike.

 

The voluntary safeguards are only an early, tentative step as Washington and governments across the world seek to put in place legal and regulatory frameworks for the development of artificial intelligence. The agreements include testing products for security risks and using watermarks to make sure consumers can spot A.I.-generated material.

 

But lawmakers have struggled to regulate social media and other technologies in ways that keep up with the rapidly evolving technology.

 

The Biden Presidency

Avoiding Indictment Talk: President Biden seems to delight in needling Donald Trump and his Republican allies. But when it comes to Trump’s legal troubles, he and his top allies are treating them like Voldemort.

Presidential Campaign: Wealthy Democrats have thrown their money behind Biden’s re-election bid. But the small donors that helped him break fund-raising records during his 2020 campaign have yet to step up their contributions.

Kennedy Files: Thirty years after Congress ordered that papers related to President John F. Kennedy’s assassination be made public with limited exceptions, the president has completed a review of the files to be released.

Supreme Court: Biden has denounced recent rulings but has resisted a full-throated attack on the court or the individual justices, despite mounting pressure from activists and from within the Democratic Party.

The White House offered no details of a forthcoming presidential executive order that aims to deal with another problem: how to control the ability of China and other competitors to get ahold of the new artificial intelligence programs, or the components used to develop them.

 

The order is expected to involve new restrictions on advanced semiconductors and restrictions on the export of the large language models. Those are hard to secure — much of the software can fit, compressed, on a thumb drive.

An executive order could provoke more opposition from the industry than Friday’s voluntary commitments, which experts said were already reflected in the practices of the companies involved. The promises will not restrain the plans of the A.I. companies nor hinder the development of their technologies. And as voluntary commitments, they will not be enforced by government regulators.

We are pleased to make these voluntary commitments alongside others in the sector,” Nick Clegg, the president of global affairs at Meta, the parent company of Facebook, said in a statement. “They are an important first step in ensuring responsible guardrails are established for A.I. and they create a model for other governments to follow.”

 

As part of the safeguards, the companies agreed to security testing, in part by independent experts; research on bias and privacy concerns; information sharing about risks with governments and other organizations; development of tools to fight societal challenges like climate change; and transparency measures to identify A.I.-generated material.

 

In a statement announcing the agreements, the Biden administration said the companies must ensure that “innovation doesn’t come at the expense of Americans’ rights and safety.”

“Companies that are developing these emerging technologies have a responsibility to ensure their products are safe,” the administration said in a statement.

 

Brad Smith, the president of Microsoft and one of the executives attending the White House meeting, said his company endorsed the voluntary safeguards.

 

“By moving quickly, the White House’s commitments create a foundation to help ensure the promise of A.I. stays ahead of its risks,” Mr. Smith said.

 

Anna Makanju, the vice president of global affairs at OpenAI, described the announcement as “part of our ongoing collaboration with governments, civil society organizations and others around the world to advance AI governance.”

 

For the companies, the standards described Friday serve two purposes: as an effort to forestall, or shape, legislative and regulatory moves with self-policing, and a signal that they are dealing with the new technology thoughtfully and proactively.

ut the rules on which they agreed are largely the lowest common denominator, and can be interpreted by every company differently. For example, the firms committed to strict cybersecurity measures around the data used to make the language models on which generative A.I. programs are developed. But there is no specificity about what that means, and the companies would have an interest in protecting their intellectual property anyway.

 

And even the most careful companies are vulnerable. Microsoft, one of the firms attending the White House event with Mr. Biden, scrambled last week to counter a Chinese government-organized hack on the private emails of American officials who were dealing with China. It now appears that China stole, or somehow obtained, a “private key” held by Microsoft that is the key to authenticating emails — one of the company’s most closely guarded pieces of code.

 

Given such risks, the agreement is unlikely to slow the efforts to pass legislation and impose regulation on the emerging technology.

 

Paul Barrett, the deputy director of the Stern Center for Business and Human Rights at New York University, said that more needed to be done to protect against the dangers that artificial intelligence posed to society.

 

“The voluntary commitments announced today are not enforceable, which is why it’s vital that Congress, together with the White House, promptly crafts legislation requiring transparency, privacy protections, and stepped-up research on the wide range of risks posed by generative A.I.,” Mr. Barrett said in a statement.

European regulators are poised to adopt A.I. laws later this year, which has prompted many of the companies to encourage U.S. regulations. Several lawmakers have introduced bills that include licensing for A.I. companies to release their technologies, the creation of a federal agency to oversee the industry, and data privacy requirements. But members of Congress are far from agreement on rules.

 

Lawmakers have been grappling with how to address the ascent of A.I. technology, with some focused on risks to consumers and others acutely concerned about falling behind adversaries, particularly China, in the race for dominance in the field.

 

This week, the House committee on competition with China sent bipartisan letters to U.S.-based venture capital firms, demanding a reckoning over investments they had made in Chinese A.I. and semiconductor companies. For months, a variety of House and Senate panels have been questioning the A.I. industry’s most influential entrepreneurs and critics to determine what sort of legislative guardrails and incentives Congress ought to be exploring.

 

Many of those witnesses, including Sam Altman of OpenAI, have implored lawmakers to regulate the A.I. industry, pointing out the potential for the new technology to cause undue harm. But that regulation has been slow to get underway in Congress, where many lawmakers still struggle to grasp what exactly A.I. technology is.

 

In an attempt to improve lawmakers’ understanding, Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, began a series of sessions this summer to hear from government officials and experts about the merits and dangers of artificial intelligence across a number of fields.

 

Karoun Demirjian contributed reporting from Washington.

 

Michael D. Shear is a veteran White House correspondent and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner who was a member of the team that won the Public Service Medal for Covid coverage in 2020. He is the co-author of “Border Wars: Inside Trump’s Assault on Immigration.” More about Michael D. Shear

 

Cecilia Kang covers technology and regulation and joined The Times in 2015. She is a co-author, along with Sheera Frenkel of The Times, of “An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination.” More about Cecilia Kang

 

David E. Sanger is a White House and national security correspondent. In a 38-year reporting career for The Times, he has been on three teams that have won Pulitzer Prizes, most recently in 2017 for international reporting. His newest book is “The Perfect Weapon: War, Sabotage and Fear in the Cyber Age.” More about David E. Sanger

 

A version of this article appears in print on July 22, 2023, Section A, Page 1 of the New York edition with the headline: Pressed by Biden, Big Tech Agrees to A.I. Rules. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button