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Biden's AI summit was a hit because of facts — not fear

The president's meeting with artificial intelligence experts and activists was a breath of fresh air compared to AI conversations you've likely heard elsewhere.


If you’re like me, and don’t want to see artificial intelligence technology destroy society in one way or another, sensible conversation around the topic can be quite therapeutic. 

And with that frame of mind, President Joe Biden's meeting with AI experts in San Francisco on Tuesday to discuss the power and potential of AI technology was, dare I say, encouraging. My friends, we may be moving one step toward staving off the scary robot revolution of our nightmares. That is, if Tuesday is any indicator of where the national AI discussion is headed. 

Here are some of my main takeaways. 

In his speech, Biden touted some of his administration’s proposal for an AI Bill of Rights as well as his executive order directing officials overseeing top government agencies to root out bias in AI tools they use to conduct their work. 

The United States is far behind entities like the European Union in terms of forging a comprehensive, government-wide effort to rein in AI. But the Biden administration’s efforts could be seen as an important — albeit belated — step to get the U.S. to that point. And that’s good news, in my view. 

This comment from Biden ahead of his closed-door meeting with experts was particularly insightful:

As I’ve said before ... we’ll see more technological change in the next 10 years than we’ve seen in the last 50 years and maybe even beyond that. And AI is already driving that change in every part of the American life, often in ways we don’t notice.

AI is already making it easier to search the internet, helping us drive to our destinations while avoiding traffic in real time. AI is going to change the way we teach, learn and help solve challenges like disease and climate change — and giving ... the time to focus on the things that matter most to you personally.

But in seizing this moment, we need to manage the risks to our society, to our economy, and our national security.

Watch a clip of Biden’s remarks here

This was smart speechwriting. Biden balanced the exciting potential of AI with its potential downsides, and, crucially, discusses the ways AI already affects our lives. This differed from a strategy we’ve seen deployed by Big Tech profiteers like Twitter CEO Elon Musk and OpenAI CEO Sam Altman, who tend to speak of AI as a creepy, looming threat rather than something that is currently impacting society for better or worse. Biden's remarks suggest his administration has been listening to the AI ethicists who’ve criticized the fanciful, fatalistic and overly futuristic jargon coming from major industry executives in the AI space

When I listen for sensible voices in that space, I’m listening for an understanding of AI’s current and future challenges. And Biden’s camp is, at least so far, striking the right tone. 

“Social media has already shown us the harm that powerful technology can do without the right safeguards in place,” Biden said at one point during his remarks. 

This tweet is evidence someone in the White House gets it, as well. 

As The Los Angeles Times noted on Tuesday, Biden’s meeting included a bunch of Big Tech critics (also encouraging in my view). 

The Times reports: 

The experts Biden met with Tuesday included some of Big Tech’s loudest critics. The list includes children’s advocate Jim Steyer, who founded and leads Common Sense Media; Tristan Harris, executive director and co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology; Joy Buolamwini, founder of the Algorithmic Justice League; and Fei-Fei Li, co-director of Stanford’s Human-Centered AI Institute. California Gov. Gavin Newsom also joined Biden at the AI event.

For more than a year now, I’ve been laser-focused on the Biden administration’s attention to tech, and its apparent desire to broaden access to technology and conversations about technology beyond Big Tech elites. In that regard, Tuesday’s summit was a step in the right direction.