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Government Plans to Issue Technical Standards Governing Artificial Intelligence Technologies

On February 11, 2019, the White House published a plan for developing and protecting artificial intelligence technologies in the United States, citing economic and national security concerns among other reasons for the action.  Coming two years after Beijing’s 2017 announcement that China intends to be the global leader in AI by 2030, President Trump’s Executive Order on Maintaining American Leadership in Artificial Intelligence lays out five principles for AI, including “development of appropriate technical standards and reduc[ing] barriers to the safe testing and deployment of AI technologies in order to enable the creation of new AI-related industries and the adoption of AI by today’s industries.”  The Executive Order, which lays out a framework for an “American AI Initiative” (AAII), tasks the White House’s National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence, established in 2018, with identifying federal government agencies to develop and implement the technical standards (so-called “implementing agencies”).

Unpacking the AAII’s technical standards principle suggests two things.  First, federal governance of AI under the Trump Administration will favor a policy and standards governance approach over a more onerous command-and-control-type regulatory agency rulemaking approach leading to regulations (which the Trump administration often refers to as “barriers”).  Second, no technical standards will be adopted that stand in the way of the development or use of AI technologies at the federal level if they impede economic and national security goals.

So what sort of technical standards might the Select Committee on AI and the implementing agencies come up with?  And how might those standards impact government agencies, government contractors, and even private businesses from a legal perspective?

The AAII is short on answers to those questions, and we won’t know more until at least August 2019 when the Secretary of Commerce, through the Director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), is required by the AAII to issue a plan “for Federal engagement in the development of technical standards and related tools in support of reliable, robust, and trustworthy systems that use AI technologies.”  Even so, it is instructive to review some relevant technical standards and related legal issues in anticipation of what might lie ahead for the United States AI industry.

A survey of technical standards used across a spectrum of different industries shows that they can take many different forms, but often they fall into either prescriptive or performance-based standards.  Pre-determined prescriptive metrics may specify requirements for things like accuracy, quality, output, materials, composition, and consumption.  In the AI space, a prescriptive standard for an AI technology could involve a benchmark for classification accuracy using a standardized data set (i.e., how well does the system work), or a numerical upper limit on power consumption, latency, weight, and size.  Prescriptive standards can be one-size-fits-all, or they can vary.

Performance-based standards describe minimum or best practices focusing on results to be achieved and thus, in many situations, provide more flexibility compared to prescriptive standards.  For example, a performance-based standard could require a computer vision system to detect all objects in a specified field of view, and tag and track them for a period of time.  How the developer achieves that result is less important in performance-based standards.

Technical standards may also specify requirements for the performance of risk assessments to numerically compare an AI system’s expected benefits and impacts to various alternatives.  Compliance with technical standards may be judged by advisory committees who follow established procedures for independent and open review.  Procedures may be established for enforcement of technical standards when non-compliance is observed.  Depending on the circumstances, technical standards may be published for the public to see or they may be maintained in confidence.  Technical standards are often reviewed on an on-going or periodic basis to assess the need for revisions to reflect changes in previous assumptions (important in cases when rapid technological improvements or shifts in priorities occur).

Under the direction of the AAII, the White House’s Select Committee and various designated implementing agencies could develop new technical standards for AI technologies, but they could also adopt (and possibly modify) standards published by others.  The International Organization for Standards (ISO), American National Standards Institute (ANSI), National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and the Institute for Electronics and Electrical Engineers (IEEE) are among the few private and public organizations that have developed or are developing AI standards or guidance.  Individual state legislatures, academic institutions, and tech companies have also published guidance, principles, and areas of concern that could be applicable to the development of technical and non-technical standards for AI technologies.  By way of example, the ISO’s technical standard for “big data” architecture includes use cases for deep learning applications and large scale unstructured data collection.  The Partnership on AI, a private non-profit organization whose board consists of representatives from IBM, Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and others, has developed what it considers non-technical “best practices” for AI technologies.

Under the AAII, the role of technical standards, in addition to helping build an AI industry, will be to “minimize vulnerability to attacks from malicious actors and reflect Federal priorities for innovation, public trust, and public confidence in systems that use AI technologies.”  It is hard to imagine a purely technical standard addressing trust and confidence, though a non-technical standards-setting process could address those issues by, for example, introducing measures related to fairness, accountability, and transparency.  Consider the example of delivering AI-based healthcare services at places like Veterans Administration facilities, where trust and confidence could be reflected in non-technical standards that provide for the publication of clear, understandable explanations about how an AI system works and how it made a decision that affected a patent’s care.  Addressing trust and confidence could also be reflected in requirements for open auditing of AI systems.  The IEEE’s “Ethically Aligned Design” reference considers these and related issues.

Another challenge in developing technical standards is to avoid incorporating patented technologies “essential” to the standards adopted by the government, or if unavoidable, to develop rules for disclosure and licensing of essential patents.  As the court in Apple v. Motorola explained, “[s]ome technological standards incorporate patented technology. If a patent claims technology selected by a standards-setting organization, the patent is called an ‘essential patent.’ Many standards-setting organizations have adopted rules related to the disclosure and licensing of essential patents. The policies often require or encourage members of the organization to identify patents that are essential to a proposed standard and to agree to license their essential patents on fair, reasonable and nondiscriminatory terms to anyone who requests a license. (These terms are often referred to by the acronyms FRAND or RAND.)  Such rules help to insure that standards do not allow the owners of essential patents to abuse their market power to extort competitors or prevent them from entering the marketplace.”  Apple, Inc. v. Motorola Mobility, Inc., 886 F. Supp. 2d 1061 (WD Wis. 2012).  Given the proliferation of new AI-related US patents issued to tech companies in recent years, the likelihood that government technical standards will encroach on some of those patents seems high.

For government contractors, AI technical standards could be imposed on them through the government contracting process.  A contracting agency could incorporate new AI technical standards by reference in government contracts, and those standards would flow through to individual task and work orders performed by contractors under those contracts.  Thus, government contractors would need to review and understand the technical standards in the course of its performance under a specified written scope of work to ensure compliance.  Sponsoring agencies would likely be expected to review contractor deliverables to measure compliance with applicable technical standards.  In the case of non-compliance, contracting officials and their sponsoring agency would be expected to deploy their enforcement authority to ensure problems are corrected, which could include monetary penalties.

Although private businesses that are not government contractors may not be directly affected by agency-specific technical standards developed under the AAII, customers of those private businesses could, absent other relevant technical standards, use the government’s AI technical standards as a benchmark when evaluating a business’s products and services.  Moreover, even if federal AI-based technical standards do not directly apply to private businesses, there is always the possibility that Congress could legislatively mandate the development of similar or different technical and non-technical standards and other requirements applicable to AI technologies sold and used in commerce.

The president’s Executive Order on AI has turned an “if” into a “when” in the context of federal governance of AI technologies.  If you are a stakeholder, now is a good time to put resources into closely monitoring developments in this area that may affect you.

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