Should AI Policy Be Determined By Tech Billionaires?

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A few weeks ago, it was revealed that Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google and chairman of Apple with an estimated net worth of $23 billion, had significantly contributed to the creation of legislation governing artificial intelligence in Washington without also disclosing his investments in AI enterprises.

Along with many others, I’m conflicted about the ethics of this situation. Schmidt is an expert in this field with the skills and experience to provide our government with critical guidance on regulating and supporting AI research and businesses. And yet he’s also a person with many conflicts of interest, potentially granted too much power over the direction of AI policy.

Power to the modern patrician

Around four years ago, Congress formed a new body called the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence. Their purpose was “to consider the methods and means necessary to advance the development of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and associated technologies to comprehensively address the national security and defense needs of the United States”.

Eric Schmidt was appointed the chairman of this commission. Other notable members: Safra Catz, the CEO of Oracle with a net worth of $1.5 billion, Andy Jassy, now-CEO of Amazon with an estimated net worth of ~$400 million, and Eric Horvitz, CSO of Microsoft with a net worth valued at ~$3 million.

Under his direction, the team explained artificial intelligence to government representatives and described its many applications, including computer vision, predictive modeling, and natural language comprehension. They also identified a wide range of potential risks, such as AI-engineered pathogens, individually tailored misinformation, deep-fakes, and data poisoning. The commission advocated for an $8 billion increase in spending on AI by 2025, and additionally developed ethical procedures for use of artificial intelligence.

The creation of a $200 billion investment fund to support AI research and development, the formulation of a national AI strategy, and the creation of a workforce training program are among the accomplishments listed in the commission's final report. Many of these objectives were achieved through publishing reports - legislation that is now law - and “recommendations on AI ethical principles” that were passed and enacted in February 2020 with limited to no alterations. The group also reportedly had an impact on the direction of bills Congress passed pertaining to national security. The general public is ignorant of what may be inside of them since they are classified.

The commission ultimately concluded their work and disbanded at the start of October 2022. They were undeniably successful in their goals. But was this group, originally intended to provide advice, perhaps given too much influence?

Conflicts of interest

Schmidt made a private investment five months after being appointed to the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence in an initial seed round of financing for a startup company called Beacon, which finds cost-effective shipping routes for cargo. This was the first of dozens of such investments he would make while in this government position. He’s also previously invested in projects such as Rebellion Defense, which works with national security departments to produce AI technologies.

Schmidt therefore had a personal economic stake in the industry he was responsible for creating new regulations and encouraging government funding for. As stated in International Policy Digest, “he’s got many, many financial incentives to ensure that the Department of Defense and other federal agencies adopt AI aggressively… it’s absolutely a conflict of interest”.

While this form of conflict of interest isn’t unique among people in government positions (almost every politician has ties to industry or investments in companies), it’s certainly viewed by many as undesirable. With such conflicts, a better solution could be passed over in favor of supporting prior investments by politicians or members of the committee.

Lack of transparency

While Schmidt claims he was compliant with all procedures and the U.S. government was aware of his private investments, the public was not; Schmidt did not reveal these details until far after the fact. Moreover, the proposals that the commission was developing were not shared publicly during the process of their creation, meaning that other people could not benefit from that knowledge and make similar investments.

Schmidt’s conflicts of interests could have been reduced by simply being more transparent and making his investments public. He also could have mitigated them completely by choosing not to invest in AI startups while in a position of powerful influence.

Valuable insight

Eric Schmidt and the other members of the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence are highly experienced and knowledgeable about the space they are guiding.

Their insight is undeniably valuable. One only has to watch this clip of a senator asking Zuckerberg stupid questions to recognize our government's fundamental lack of understanding surrounding tech. Few members of congress are familiar with basic computer science, and so having an advisory board made up of incredibly successful people from the tech world is a huge boon to the sector.

And a boon it has been - the proposals that were made and legislation confirmed from the commission appear to be incredibly positive for the AI industry. With the dual forces of a desire for continued American tech dominance and fear of Chinese superiority in AI, our government is highly motivated to follow the committee’s recommendations.

So what do we think?

People are never going to be fully altruistic - in taking this position, Schmidt clearly also saw an opportunity to benefit his investments and therefore himself. However, is that necessarily a bad thing?

In this scenario, I’d argue no. While I’m all for holding people accountable for ethically dubious decisions, I also think that these scenarios need to be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Given that Schmidt’s desires appear to be mostly aligned with that of our country, his recommendations and proposals were positive. The insights of this board were likely far more relevant to supporting the AI industry than the average congressperson’s beliefs.

While I wouldn’t trust this committee to write laws for tech regulation, I can see the value in having their voice heard for AI-centered national security policy. Still, when running his new lobbying entity, the “Special Competitive Studies Project”, Schmidt should be more transparent about his investments. Our government should also appoint more people to future commissions to reduce any one individual’s influence.

Thanks for reading :)

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