One of the GOP’s top voices on AI sounds off on the need for ‘light-touch’ regulation — and why the coronavirus pandemic should accelerate discussions in Congress on the future of work

  • Congress is routinely criticized for failing to keep federal regulations in-line with the fast pace of innovation in places like Silicon Valley. 
  • Artificial intelligence is no different. But as the tech becomes more common-place in our society, advocates are increasingly calling for laws to oversee it. 
  • Oregon’s Rep. Greg Walden is one of the leading GOP voices on tech regulation. While any legislation on the issue is unlikely to move this year, Walden is still optimistic it can get done. 
  • “It’s hard. The system is built to be difficult, but it can be done if you’ve got people in the room who want to get it done,” he told Business Insider. “I’m not ready to throw in the towel at all.”
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Congress is routinely criticized for failing to keep federal laws aligned with the pace of technological advancements.

The delays often means companies are left to write their own rules — sometimes to the detriment of consumers. Or that states act independently, creating a patchwork of regulation that can be costly for startups and small businesses to adhere to. 

Experts worry that legislative sluggishness could affect artificial intelligence, spurring some legislators to sound off on the need for urgency. 

In the House, one of those officials is Rep. Greg Walden — a key point-person for the GOP on tech issues. The Oregon Republican is the ranking member on the Energy and Commerce Committee, the panel that has jurisdiction over topics like AI. That’s a very Washington DC-way of saying: If there’s an AI bill moving in the next few months, it would almost certainly need his support.  

“The system is built to be difficult, but it can be done if you’ve got people in the room who want to get it done,” Walden told Business Insider. “I’m not ready to throw in the towel at all.”

While some may view regulation negatively, such frameworks are often necessary for innovations to thrive beyond test-kitchens. Top self-driving car companies, for example, aggressively pushed Congress in 2018 to pass new legislation that would make it easier to launch the technology.

The House of Representatives unanimously passed its own legislation that would have put an initial oversight paradigm in place for autonomous vehicles — an accomplishment that is increasingly unheard of for major legislation in today’s bitter political climate. Then the measure went on to die in the Senate amid partisan bickering. Now, Congress sits idly by as the Trump administration crafts its own rules and Waymo, Cruise, Argo AI, and others continue to test their self-driving cars on roads around the US. 

Other types of AI are also seeing rapid adoption among consumers, enterprises, and federal agencies. The technology holds immense promise to improve our lives. Imagine about a world where hospitals use AI-powered machines to spot early signs of cancer months — or even years — before a doctor could. Or where a store could learn your buying habits so precisely that it could deliver all the items you need before you even think to order them. 

Those types of advancements are closer than you may think and they will all be powered by AI. But there are potential dark-sides to the technology as well. Since AI systems are trained on gobs of historical data, existing biases get amplified, which can have seriously flawed, real-world consequences, like when machines are used to predict recidivism — and get it wrong — or when recruitment AI automatically filters out Black or other minority candidates. 

Facial recognition is another hotly debated topic right now, with critics arguing that it can be discriminatory against people of color, and that it creates a “surveillance state.” Immigration and Customs Enforcement was recently given wide authority to use the tech to analyze millions of Maryland driver’s license photos, which raised serious alarm bells for immigration and privacy advocates. 

While some top Democrats are pushing legislation to ban its use among law enforcement, the bill doesn’t currently have the support of Republicans.

For his part, Walden said the technology “presents tremendous benefits, from helping law enforcement identify suspects to streamlining aspects of our everyday lives.” While he said consumer privacy must be protected, Walden added that an outright ban would “prohibits us from taking advantage of [its] benefits” and “puts China and other freedom-hating countries in the driver’s seat of developing the technologies that will define our future.”

Facial recognition technology has become a staple of life in China, and the country has reportedly explored using it to track persecuted Uighurs.

But apart from that key flashpoint, the issue or artificial intelligence legislation remains largely bipartisan as advocates lay the groundwork for potential action in the future. Still, it appears unlikely Congress will be able to act on any major AI legislation before the year ends, given the focus on the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic impact. 

But Walden remained optimistic it can get done eventually, even without his help (he is slated to retire at the end of this year). His thoughts though provide a window into how Republicans are thinking about this issue, which will be important for whenever Congress decides to take it up:

Walden worries that broad regulation could stifle innovation

For Walden — and by proxy, many Republicans lawmakers— the main focus of any legislative package on AI is two-fold: Protect consumers and make sure American firms don’t fall behind rivals like China as a result of over-regulation. 

Earlier this year, GOP lawmakers released several bills aimed at emerging tech like AI, blockchain, and facial recognition. None had Democratic co-sponsors and many were largely toothless — calling for actions like reports on how the technology is currently used across the federal government.

But it offered up a glimpse into the Republican priorities for future negotiations, including where the potential disputes with Democrats could arise. One of those could be disagreements over just how sweeping the regulations should be. 

“I always have some hesitation about unnecessary litigation risk, because you can get bogged down in innovation if you have over-regulation,” Walden said. “Very, very few places are left in the American economy that heavy-handed government regulation hasn’t found its way around the neck of innovation.” 

The goal for Walden is to make sure those who are acting in good faith can avoid unnecessary government intrusion into their operations — what he refers to as ‘light touch’ regulation. 

“If companies violate it, fine, let’s go after them,” Walden said. “But they need clear, bright lines and guard rails.”

COVID-19 should accelerate discussion about the future of work 

Alongside protecting consumer data, which remains a bipartisan issue that continually fails to advance far beyond talking points, the surge of AI is also spurring more serious discussions around the future of work. 

And the coronavirus pandemic is only accelerating those conversations. 

With millions of Americans filing for unemployment, it remains unclear how aggressively corporations will seek to rehire workers or whether they use the opportunity to replace some human employees with tech that can do the same job for cheaper. 

The issue is almost certain to come up during any federal debate around AI regulation. Advocates like AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler — the second highest position at the labor union giant — and Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, previously called for legislation that would protect workers in the event that a company makes a significant tech investment that could displace jobs. 

Walden said the workforce impact was an issue “we have to be very cognizant of.” 

“It’s something we as policymakers don’t think about as much in the beginning as we should,” he added. “It is something we should look at. What happens when any sector of our economy begins to shift? We’re seeing it now in COVID at light-speed.” 

And while none of these issues will be easy for lawmakers to come to agreement on, Walden urged his fellow elected officials to act swiftly before the lack of any regulations actually stifles innovation from occurring — particularly as states may look to act on this issue independently. 

“What worries me is that big companies can always comply,” he said. “The people who lack a voice are the little entrepreneurs and small business folks who get crushed. And that innovation that spurs competition against what begins to look like monopolies gets lost. And that’s where we suffer.” 

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