Kamala Harris Warns That ‘Existential Threats’ of AI Are Already Here

Vice President Kamala Harris called on world leaders to tackle threats that artificial intelligence poses to human rights and democratic values in a speech in London on Wednesday. She also announced new measures the Biden administration would take to manage the risks and regulatory challenges of the emerging technology.

In a speech delivered at the U.S. Embassy in London, Ms. Harris emphasized that discrimination, disinformation and democratic challenges were already affecting vulnerable populations, and she called on leaders to look beyond profits and future fears.

“These threats are often referred to as the existential threats of A.I. because, of course, they could endanger the very existence of humanity,” Ms. Harris said. “These threats, without question, are profound, and they demand global action. But let us be clear: There are additional threats that also demand our action — threats that are currently causing harm and which, to many people, also feel existential.”

Ms. Harris’s speech, during which she fleshed out a sweeping executive order President Biden signed this week, included a distinct emphasis on consumer protections and how A.I. could exacerbate existing inequalities. Research has shown that A.I. programs can produce biased results that discriminate by race, gender or age.

On the same day that 28 countries, including the United States and China, signed a declaration warning of the potential for “catastrophic” damage to humanity from the most advanced forms of A.I., Ms. Harris also used her address to highlight how the technology was already causing harm.

She detailed the ways that A.I. could already disenfranchise and discriminate against vulnerable populations: a senior kicked off his health care plan because of a faulty algorithm, a woman threatened by an abusive partner with explicit deep fake photographs, a young father wrongfully imprisoned because of biased facial recognition.

“And when people around the world cannot discern fact from fiction because of a flood of A.I.-enabled mis- and disinformation, I ask: Is that not existential for democracy?” Ms. Harris said.

The speech came one day before Ms. Harris attends a global summit hosted by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on the future of technology, during which she will seek to rally the world around the United States’ ideals as part of broader global standards for a technology that holds great promise and peril.

Ms. Harris will represent the United States alongside tech figures including Elon Musk and representatives from countries that are advancing in A.I., including China.

On Wednesday, Mr. Sunak called Ms. Harris’s speech “incredibly significant.”

The United States has trailed places like the European Union, China and Israel in regulating the technology, with Congress yet to pass major legislation on the subject and many of the provisions in Mr. Biden’s executive order largely unenforceable.

But it is the most concrete step the administration has taken to date, in addition to garnering agreements from top companies to manage risks amid a race to capitalize on the technology, and establishing a “Blueprint for an A.I. Bill of Rights” that focuses on consumer protection.

Ms. Harris, who championed consumer protections in Silicon Valley as California’s attorney general and warned of the risks of A.I. in 2019 as a senator, said the agreements in particular were significant. “As history has shown, in the absence of regulation and strong government oversight, some technology companies choose to prioritize profit over the well-being of their customers, the safety of our communities and the stability of our democracies,” she said.

Ms. Harris announced several additional measures the United States was taking to both flesh out and build on Mr. Biden’s order.

They include establishing an “A.I. Safety Institute,” which would create standards to test the safety of A.I. models for public use, and new guidelines for federal agencies to ensure that the technology is used for the public benefit.

A new draft policy from the Office of Management and Budget would guide how the technology is used in federal agencies, which would be overseen by new chief A.I. officers.

She also announced that 30 other nations had joined a “political declaration” created by the United States that seeks to establish a “set of norms for responsible development, deployment and use of military A.I. capabilities.”

“The urgency of this moment must compel us to create a collective vision of what this future must be,” Ms. Harris said.

Ms. Harris also emphasized the importance of civil society groups and the private sector in ensuring that A.I. is developed and used for the public benefit. She announced $200 million in philanthropic funding from 10 organizations to help support the administration’s goals.

Maya Wiley, the president and chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said Ms. Harris’s speech provided a significant “counterweight” to big tech companies and others who tend to minimize everyday consequences that three-quarters of Americans fear will escalate with the proliferation of A.I.

“She’s got real people who are the wind in her sails on this,” Ms. Wiley said.

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