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News / Opinion / Columns

Hosseini: How will U.S. election affect generative AI?

By Mohammad Hosseini
Published: June 17, 2024, 6:01am

We’ve seen it play out time and again. Industries that lack sufficient government oversight prioritize short-term profits over long-term sustainability and can cause significant harm to the economy, society and the environment. Consider social media, Big Oil and real estate.

We’re now staring down the barrel of the next industry in dire need of stronger government guardrails: generative artificial intelligence, or GenAI.

Over the past year and a half, federal agencies, among many others, have used GenAI models such as ChatGPT to generate text, images, audio and video, making GenAI a priority concern for the U.S. government. And while we may assume President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump are at opposite ends of the political spectrum on this issue, as they are on practically every issue, their approach to AI has actually been very similar. They have pampered AI developers with significant funding and deregulation, giving them global leverage, credit and visibility.

Last July, the Biden administration announced the securing of voluntary commitments from seven AI companies under the guise of underscoring “safety, security and trust.” But in reality, these so-called commitments were more like gifts because their scope is limited to GenAI tools that are overall more powerful than existing ones. The commitments require public reporting of capabilities, limitations, areas of appropriate/inappropriate use, societal risks, effects on fairness and bias, but only for more powerful AI models, thus offering a carte blanche for existing models.

In September, the Biden administration announced new voluntary commitments with identical stipulations and scope for eight other AI companies. One month later, Biden signed an executive order on AI, which offered GenAI developers even more favors, such as ordering federal agencies to support AI development and promote its use.

Perhaps the most compelling aspect of the executive order discourages federal agencies from “imposing broad general bans or blocks on agency use of generative AI.” This means that even in cases when an oversight agency has reasons to believe that using GenAI is harmful, it cannot ban the use.

Trump is no stranger to AI. Like Biden, Trump emphasized that federal agencies should consider limiting regulatory overreach, thereby reducing barriers to innovation and growth regardless of the risks. In February 2019, Trump signed an executive order to maintain American leadership in AI and launched the American AI Initiative. Among other things, this executive order directed federal agencies to prioritize research and development in AI, enhance access to high-quality federal data and computing resources for AI researchers, set AI governance standards and build the AI workforce. In February 2020, Trump committed to doubling nondefense research and development investment in AI over two years. In December 2020, he signed an executive order on promoting the use of AI in the federal government.

These examples show that Trump’s strategy toward AI was very similar to Biden’s, and one could even argue that Biden’s policies mirrored and continued those started by Trump, except Biden seems more lenient and has offered more specific favors. But other differences between Biden and Trump could affect AI developers, with the most notable being their disagreement regarding climate change.

GenAI developers may secretly hope for Trump to win to benefit from more lenient climate policies. Also, military use of GenAI may be affected by whether Biden or Trump wins. With the unrestricted use of AI during the Israel-Hamas conflict and successful applications by the Department of Defense, demand for these capabilities will grow.

If international conventions are drafted to regulate military use of AI, the president’s endorsement — or lack thereof — will significantly affect developers’ global business.

Mohammad Hosseini is an assistant professor at Northwestern University. His research focuses on topics related to technology ethics, including artificial intelligence.