This week, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) released a year-one report card on its American Artificial Intelligence Initiative. Earlier this month, the European Commission (EC) published a major set of proposals for its strategy on AI. Both of these follow AI principles and regulations proposed in May 2019 by the multi-nation Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which includes the U.S. and European countries.
Despite that shared international work, the U.S. and Europe have also gone their own respective ways. It’s clear that the rhetoric of both is strongly bound to geography — U.S.-first here, Europe-first there — but the aforementioned announcements also show a slight but important difference in tone between the two. Whereas Europe sounds largely optimistic, the U.S. comes off as more fearful.
Just over a week ago, EC president Ursula von der Leyen took to the podium and gave a speech announcing and explaining Europe’s new AI strategy. She discussed Eurocentric concerns first, adding, “We want the digital transformation to power our economy, and we want to find European solutions in the digital age.”
And much of her speech focused on how well Europe is adopting AI, saying that “most articles are published from the European science community,” and making the claim that “Europe is leading in AI.”
But early in her remarks, she pivoted to focusing on the global concern of climate change. She was also adamant that AI technologies, products, and services must comply with people’s rights, must be tested and certified before they can be in the marketplace, and must be free of biased data.
VentureBeat’s Chris O’Brien neatly encapsulated the sentiment around the “ecosystem of trust” at the heart of the announcements:
EC leaders expressed optimism that AI could help tackle challenges such as climate change, mobility, and health care, along with a determination to keep private tech companies from influencing regulation and dominating the data needed to develop these algorithms.
Europe is also looking at a third way forward on AI that takes neither China’s government-first approach nor the U.S.’s tech industry-led efforts. Instead, it’s more focused on ethos. “Another route to differentiate Europe from the U.S. and China is a more privacy-driven approach built on the back of human rights-respecting regulation like GDPR,” wrote VentureBeat’s Khari Johnson last year. He quoted Digital Hub Denmark CEO Camilla Rygaard-Hjalsted, who said, “I strongly believe that we can become frontrunners within an ethical application of AI in our societies,” she said. “In the short run, the stronger European regulation compared to China and the U.S. in this field might decrease our ability to scale revenue; however, in the long run, this focus on AI for the people can serve as our competitive advantage, and we become [a] role model for the rest of [the] world — one can only hope.”
Although missives on AI from the U.S. government also frequently serve up warm and optimistic overtures, they’re often peppered with two more dour themes: a passive-aggressive adversarial attitude to the rest of the world and concerns about the dangers of overregulation.
What’s disorienting is that people like U.S. CTO Michael Kratsios often surround pessimistic notes with optimistic ones. For example, in a speech he gave at the OECD meeting in Paris where participants signed the principles, Kratsios was mostly gregarious, espousing the Trump administration’s desire to work with the U.S.’s “closest allies,” the continents’ mutual values of respect and trust, and the potential for AI to positively impact the world.
But then he backs into this: “We also encourage removing regulatory obstacles to discovery and innovation, ensuring all Americans realize the full potential of emerging technologies. We must ensure our scientists, researchers, and technologists have the freedom to do what they do best — innovate, create, and push the bounds of our technological capabilities. Government should only serve to enable our brightest minds, not weigh them down.”
He added, “But we firmly believe that a rush to impose onerous and duplicative regulations will only cede our competitive edge to authoritarian governments who do not share our same values.”
It’s a jarring section of speech, bookended by warmth and an expressed desire for international cooperation. The obvious implication is that he’s making a dig at China. But he’s also implicitly expressing fear about what might happen should “we” fall behind “them.”
Kratsios and other U.S. officials reiterated that sentiment in a recent call with reporters ahead of an announcement about budget increases for AI. “I think with regards to some of our adversaries and others around the world [that] utilize this technology, it’s imperative that the U.S. continues to lead in technologies like AI,” he said. “We see others around the world using artificial intelligence to track their people, to imprison ethnic minorities, to monitor political dissidents, and this is something that does not align with American values and makes our leadership position even more of an imperative.” It wasn’t clear in the briefing and whether they consider Europe exempt from the list of “adversaries.”
The themes return again in this week’s report. The two penultimate sentences in the report’s cover letter read, “In a time of global power competition, our leadership in AI has never been more of an imperative. We remain committed to supporting the development and application of AI in a way that promotes public trust, protects civil liberties, and respects the privacy and dignity of every individual.”
This nicely encapsulates what’s disquieting about the federal rhetoric around AI. Is AI the boogeyman in a “global power competition,” or is it an opportunity for nations to work together in harmony to solve the world’s problems?
A passage from the report reads: “The United States must engage internationally to promote a global environment that supports American AI research and innovation and opens markets for American AI industries while also protecting our technological advantage in AI.” In other words, the end goal of global cooperation is to promote American interests.
Another four-page section reiterates this fear of overregulation, including this statement in the introductory paragraph: “The Federal Government plays an important role to ensure that regulations guiding the development and use of AI are supportive of innovation and not overly burdensome.” That stands in contrast to the push from lawmakers at multiple levels of government to be aggressive in creating guardrails of many kinds around AI technologies before they’re deployed.
To be fair to Kratsios, the OSTP, and all the other individuals and agencies in the federal government that are working on AI, they’ve made progress. They picked up the AI mantle from the Obama era, rather than ignoring it, and they have produced guidelines, principles, and funding, however controversial or incomplete those efforts may or may not be, particularly around regulation.
But that rhetoric around a global power struggle, adversarial relationships with other countries, and fears of regulation has been consistent and concerning.