Michael Kratsios, the Chief Technology Officer of the United States, took the stage at Stanford University last week to field questions from Stanford’s Eileen Donahoe and attendees at the 2019 Fall Conference of the Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence (HAI).
Kratsios, the fourth to hold the U.S. CTO position since its creation by President Barack Obama in 2009, was confirmed in August as President Donald Trump’s first CTO. Before joining the Trump administration, he was chief of staff at investment firm Thiel Capital and chief financial officer of hedge fund Clarium Capital. Donahoe is Executive Director of Stanford’s Global Digital Policy Incubator and served as the first U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Council during the Obama Administration.
The conversation jumped around, hitting on both accomplishments and controversies. Kratsios touted the administration’s success in fixing policy around the use of drones, its memorandum on STEM education, and an increase in funding for basic research in AI—though the magnitude of that increase wasn’t specified. He pointed out that the Trump administration’s AI policy has been a continuation of the policies of the Obama administration, and will continue to build on that foundation. As proof of this, he pointed to Trump’s signing of the American AI Initiative earlier this year. That executive order, Kratsios said, was intended to bring various government agencies together to coordinate their AI efforts and to push the idea that AI is a tool for the American worker. The AI Initiative, he noted, also took into consideration that AI will cause job displacement, and asked private companies to pledge to retrain workers.
The administration, he said, is also looking to remove barriers to AI innovation. In service of that goal, the government will, in the next month or so, release a regulatory guidance memo instructing government agencies about “how they should think about AI technologies,” said Kratsios.
U.S. vs China in AI
A few of the exchanges between Kratsios and Donahoe hit on current hot topics, starting with the tension between the U.S. and China.
“You talk a lot about unique U.S. ecosystem. In which aspect of AI is the U.S. dominant, and where is China challenging us in dominance?
“They are challenging us on machine vision. They have more data to work with, given that they have surveillance data.”
“To what extent would you say the quantity of data collected and available will be a determining factor in AI dominance?”
“It makes a big difference in the short term. But we do research on how we get over these data humps. There is a future where you don’t need as much data, a lot of federal grants are going to [research in] how you can train models using less data.”
Donahoe turned the conversation to a different tension—that between innovation and values.
“A lot of conversation yesterday was about the tension between innovation and values, and how do you hold those things together and lead in both realms.”
“We recognized that the U.S. hadn’t signed on to principles around developing AI. In May, we signed [the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development Principles on Artificial Intelligence], coming together with other Western democracies to say that these are values that we hold dear.
[Meanwhile,] we have adversaries around the world using AI to surveil people, to suppress human rights. That is why American leadership is so critical: We want to come out with the next great product. And we want our values to underpin the use cases.”
A member of the audience pushed further:
“Maintaining U.S. leadership in AI might have costs in terms of individuals and society. What costs should individuals and society bear to maintain leadership?”
“I don’t view the world that way. Our companies big and small do not hesitate to talk about the values that underpin their technology. [That is] markedly different from the way our adversaries think. The alternatives are so dire [that we] need to push efforts to bake the values that we hold dear into this technology.”
And then the conversation turned to the use of AI for facial recognition, an application which (at least for police and other government agencies) was recently banned in San Francisco.
“Some private sector companies have called for government regulation of facial recognition, and there already are some instances of local governments regulating it. Do you expect federal regulation of facial recognition anytime soon? If not, what ought the parameters be?”
“A patchwork of regulation of technology is not beneficial for the country. We want to avoid that. Facial recognition has important roles—for example, finding lost or displaced children. There are use cases, but they need to be underpinned by values.”
A member of the audience followed up on that topic, referring to some data presented earlier at the HAI conference on bias in AI:
“Frequently the example of finding missing children is given as the example of why we should not restrict use of facial recognition. But we saw Joy Buolamwini’s presentation on bias in data. I would like to hear your thoughts about how government thinks we should use facial recognition, knowing about this bias.”
“Fairness, accountability, and robustness are things we want to bake into any technology—not just facial recognition—as we build rules governing use cases.”
Immigration and innovation
A member of the audience brought up the issue of immigration:
“One major pillar of innovation is immigration, does your office advocate for it?”
“Our office pushes for best and brightest people from around the world to come to work here and study here. There are a few efforts we have made to move towards a more merit-based immigration system, without congressional action. [For example, in] the H1-B visa system, you go through two lotteries. We switched the order of them in order to get more people with advanced degrees through.”
The government’s tech infrastructure
Donahoe brought the conversation around to the tech infrastructure of the government itself:
“We talk about the shiny object, AI, but the 80 percent is the unsexy stuff, at federal and state levels. We don’t have a modern digital infrastructure to enable all the services—like a research cloud. How do we create this digital infrastructure?”
“I couldn’t agree more; the least partisan issue in Washington is about modernizing IT infrastructure. We spend like $85 billion a year on IT at the federal level, we can certainly do a better job of using those dollars.”
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.