President Joe Biden met with 14 science and technology advisers in San Francisco on Wednesday to talk about artificial intelligence and tout an investment of more than $100 million to combat deadly antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Briefly addressing the media before the meeting at the Fairmont Hotel, Biden said he had a keen interest in AI and has been seeking insight from experts “to harness the power of artificial intelligence for good while protecting people from the profound risk it also presents.”
The advisors planned to brief Biden, who sandwiched the meeting between fundraisers expected to help fill his campaign coffers, privately on “how AI is knocking down the walls so we can see new frontiers in research,” said Arati Prabhakar, the president’s advisor for science and technology. She said the president was set to hear, for example, about how AI might be used to predict extreme weather events.
Biden noted “vast differences” in the promise and perils of different types of AI, and without providing specifics promised an executive order on a technology that has exploded this year. He said his administration would continue to pursue bipartisan legislation “so America leads the way toward responsible AI innovation.”
That Biden is paying attention to AI is more important than whether he deeply understands the technology and its broad spectrum of applications, said Steve Blank, an adjunct professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University. “He understands that AI is disruptive,” Blank said. “He’s signaling that this is important to the country.”
How aggressively the White House and Congress act on the technology will have crucial effects on America’s position in the global AI race, Blank said. Allowing monopolies to take over early development would hamper the nation’s progress, while regulation too early could “strangle innovation,” Blank said.
The vast number of AI applications, from developing new medicines to deploying robotic weapons, requires government to approach each use case specifically, making regulation and legislation extremely complicated, Blank said.
While Biden may not need comprehensive expertise on new forms of AI, such knowledge is crucial for his policy makers, said Shomit Ghose, an industry fellow at the UC Berkeley Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology. “An incomplete understanding of what generative AI truly is will yield both an incomplete national strategy and incomplete legislation,” Ghose said.
The president should also be asking himself some key questions, Ghose said. “In the 21st century, AI is the necessary ingredient for business success,” Ghose said. “But what does it mean if only the biggest players in Big Tech have access to the necessary AI infrastructure, at scale, to succeed? Just as the government made a fabric of roads and ports accessible to all businesses in the past century, should government now make a fabric of data centers available as a necessary foundation for the nation’s continuing economic success?”
Chon Tang, a venture capitalist and general partner at UC Berkeley’s startup accelerator SkyDeck, applauded the focus on using AI for low-risk, high-reward purposes such as forecasting weather, developing new medicines, and creating innovative materials. But he hopes Biden will keep a close eye on job losses to automation, theft of intellectual property for building generative AIs and the long-term possibility of a dangerous super-intelligence.
“Silicon Valley in general fears regulation, and for good reason,” Tang said. “But this is a field where the Silicon Valley ethos of ‘failing fast’ carries real risks.”
Biden said major AI players had “already begun to implement voluntary commitments to help ensure that AI technology is safe, secure and trustworthy before it’s released to the public.” He said those pledges include extensive independent safety testing and watermarking of images to identify those generated by AI.
But taking Big Tech at its word may be problematic, Blank said, citing AI’s potential to dramatically boost misinformation and social media’s history of sowing societal chaos. “As long as profits are No. 1 and the country and the social good is somewhere else on the list, having companies self-regulate things that could disrupt or destroy democracy is never a good strategy,” Blank said.
On health care, Biden elaborated slightly on a White House announcement that his administration’s new Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health would invest more than $100 million to fight antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The funding will be used to “develop antibiotics and fight deadly drug-resistant bacteria,” Biden said.
Antibiotic-resistant bacteria have evolved, largely through antibiotic use on livestock and also from medical misuse, to survive exposure to the drugs, rendering infection treatments ineffective, said Dr. John Swartzberg, clinical professor emeritus of infectious diseases at UC Berkeley. The organisms, he said, are a catastrophe in the making for humanity.
“Right now it’s a very big problem but by 2050 it’s going to be an enormous problem,” Swartzberg said.
An infected hangnail, or a staph or strep infection could prove fatal without functional antibiotics, Swartzberg said. A routine surgery such as a joint replacement or heart repair “would become a fairly dangerous procedure and we would be restricting those procedures to people who are desperate to receive them, as opposed to improving their lives,” he said. “Mortality rates, particularly in childhood, will go dramatically up. Life expectancy is going to go dramatically down. The costs of protecting human health are going to go sky high.”