The US must come from behind in the global race for AI regulation

The launch of ChatGPT-3 seven months ago and the extraordinary progress of generative artificial intelligence have inspired equal parts excitement and trepidation. 

AI has, as many have observed, “the capacity both to enhance our lives and diminish them.” Congress must act urgently to tilt the scale towards enhancement by regulating a technology that stands to disrupt labor market fundamentals, threaten data privacy and remake election and media landscapes — all while entrenching existing biases and, if the hype cycle is to be believed, threaten humanity’s very existence

Policymakers and technologists alike are loudly calling for this regulation. But often overlooked in this urgent conversation is yet another crucial reason to move forward on a domestic agenda — a delay in regulation will disadvantage the United States’ ability to influence and drive multilateral cyber diplomacy, as well as other nations’ own regulatory schema.  

Meanwhile, many of our international partners have moved quickly on legislation — a point that ought to resonate amid congressional concerns about the “disproportionate” impact of the European Union’s digital regulations on U.S. technology companies. The EU has been an early global leader; Brussels aims to adopt the EU AI Act by the end of 2023. The United Kingdom, meanwhile, is attempting to position itself as a regulatory leader, touting its tech credentials and planning an international AI summit in fall 2023 (the U.K.’s claim that Brexit positions it to move quickly seems odd, given that the EU is farther along in the regulatory process).  

China, for its part, has laid down numerous AI regulatory policies in recent years, including a labeling requirement for synthetic media, regulation of internet algorithms and a requirement that AI-generated content “reflect the socialist core values.” The People’s Republic of China’s domestic practices preview what Chinese-crafted global AI norms would be: their use of AI-enabled facial recognition technology undermines human rights and privacy.  

AI joins a long list of policy areas, including arms control and global telecommunications, where international coordination is paramount. The contest to shape the global norms and laws that will govern AI and other emerging technologies has already begun. But to lead in cyber diplomacy, the United States first needs to practice what we preach, offering a concrete, regulatory alternative to China’s example of AI-enabled racial profiling and state surveillance, one that prioritizes human rights, privacy and equitable application of AI for good. Absent robust domestic regulation, U.S. talking points in international fora lack credibility — and we squander the opportunity to lead globally.  

To be sure, regulating rapidly evolving technologies is no easy task. But Washington can accelerate its regulatory pace by building upon prior federal efforts on AI uses and risks spanning three administrations. These resulting initiatives provide a robust starting point for regulation — adding teeth and specifics to the recent voluntary agreements from leading AI companies. Existing federal laws on non-discrimination, intellectual property and consumer protection should also be used to establish initial guardrails around AI systems. 

As bluntly noted in a joint statement by key federal agencies earlier this year, “automated systems [are] not an excuse for lawbreaking behavior.” Federal agencies should be empowered to apply existing regulations to unlawful outcomes that result from new technologies and resourced accordingly.  

“Move fast and break things” is not an advisable model for legislation. But Washington is not limited to a single bite at the regulatory apple — policymakers could move quickly on commonsense bipartisan measures, such as requiring labeling of AI-generated media (particularly in the context of elections), while proceeding in collecting further expert input on thornier aspects. 

Capitol Hill should act now to put pen to paper on AI regulation, thereby strengthening the U.S. negotiating position on cyber diplomacy. If the U.S. is to lead in shaping that global ecosystem, we need to back up our talking points with domestic policy — the sooner the better. 

David Hickton is the founding director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Institute for Cyber Law, Policy, and Security. He was the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania from 2010-2016. 

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