In Your Face Artificial Intelligence: Regulating the Collection and Use of Face Data (Part I)

Of all the personal information individuals agree to provide companies when they interact with online or app services, perhaps none is more personal and intimate than a person’s facial features and their moment-by-moment emotional states. And while it may seem that face detection, face recognition, and affect analysis (emotional assessments based on facial features) are technologies only sophisticated and well-intentioned tech companies with armies of data scientists and stack engineers are competent to use, the reality is that advances in machine learning, microprocessor technology, and the availability of large datasets containing face data have lowered entrance barriers to conducting robust face detection, face recognition, and affect analysis to levels never seen before.

In fact, anyone with a bit of programming knowledge can incorporate open-source algorithms and publicly available image data, train a model, create an app, and start collecting face data from app users. At the most basic entry point, all one really needs is a video camera with built-in face detection algorithms and access to tagged images of a person to start conducting facial recognition. And several commercial API’s exist making it relatively easy to tap into facial coding databases for use in assessing other’s emotional states from face data. If you’re not persuaded by the relative ease at which face data can be captured and used, just drop by any college (or high school) hackathon and see creative face data tech in action.

In this post, the uses of face data are considered, along with a brief summary of the concerns raised about collecting and using face and emotional data. Part II will explore options for face data governance, which include the possibility of new or stronger laws and regulations and policies that a self-regulating industry and individual stakeholders could develop.

The many uses of our faces

Today’s mobile and fixed cameras and AI-based face detection and recognition software enable real-time controlled access to facilities and devices. The same technology allows users to identify fugitive and missing persons in surveillance videos, private citizens interacting with police, and unknown persons of interest in online images.

The technology provides a means for conducting and verifying commercial transactions using face biometric information, tracking people automatically while in public view, and extracting physical traits from images and videos to supplement individual demographic, psychographic, and behavioristic profiles.

Face software and facial coding techniques and models are also making it easier for market researchers, educators, robot developers, and autonomous vehicle safety designers to assess emotional states of people in human-machine interactions.

These and other use cases are possible in part because of advances in camera technology, the proliferation of cameras (think smart phones, CCTVs, traffic cameras, laptop cameras, etc.) and social media platforms, where millions of images and videos are created and uploaded by users every day. Increased computer processing power has led to advances in face recognition and affect-based machine learning research and improved the ability of complex models to execute faster. As a result, face data is relatively easy to collect, process, and use.

One can easily image the many ways face data might be abused, and some of the abuses have already been reported. Face data and machine learning models have been improperly used to create pornography, for example, and to track individuals in stores and other public locations without notice and without seeking permission. Models based on face data have been reportedly developed for no apparent purpose other than for predictive classification of beauty and sexual orientation.

Face recognition models are also subject to errors. Misidentification, for example, is a weakness of face recognition and affect-based models. In fact, despite improvements, face recognition is not perfect. This can translate into false positive identifications. Obviously, tragic consequences can occur if the police or government agencies make decisions based on a false positive (or false negative) identity of a person.

Face data models have been shown to perform more accurately on persons with lighter skin color. And affect models, while raising fewer concerns compared to face recognition due mainly to the slower rate of adoption of the technology, may misinterpret emotions if culture, geography, gender, and other factors are not accounted for in training data.

Of course, instances of reported abuse, bias, and data breaches overshadow the many unreported positive uses and machine learning applications of face data. But as is often the case, problems tend to catch the eyes of policymakers, regulators, and legislators, though overreaction to hyped problems can result in a patchwork of regulations and standards that go beyond addressing the underlying concerns and cause unintended effects, such as possibly stifling innovation and reducing competitiveness.

Moreover, reactionary regulation doesn’t play well with fast-moving disruptive tech, such as face recognition and affective computing, where the law seems to always be in catch-up mode. Compounding the governance problem is the notion that regulators and legislators are not crystal ball readers who can see into the future. Indeed, future uses of face data technologies may be hard to imagine today.

Even so, what matters to many is what governments and companies are doing with still images and videos, and specifically how face data extracted from media are being used, sometimes without consent. These concerns raise questions of transparency, privacy laws, terms of service and privacy policy agreements, data ownership, ethics, and data breaches, among others. They also implicate issues of whether and when federal and state governments should tighten existing regulations and impose new regulations where gaps exist in face data governance.

With recent data breaches making headlines and policymakers and stakeholders gathering in 2018 to examine AI’s impacts, there is no better time than now to revisit the need for stronger laws and to develop new technical- and ethical-based standards and guidelines applicable to face data. The next post will explore these issues.

Regulating Artificial Intelligence Technologies by Consensus

As artificial intelligence technologies continue to transform industries, several prominent voices in the technology community are calling for regulating AI to get ahead of what they see as AI’s actual and potential social and economic impacts. These calls for action follow reports of machine learning classification bias, instances of open source AI tools being misused, lack of transparency in AI algorithms, privacy and data security issues, and forecasts of workforce impacts as AI technologies spread.

Those advocating for strong state or federal legislative action around AI, however, may be disappointed by the rate at which policymakers in the US are tackling sensitive issues. But they may be even more disappointed by recent legislative efforts suggesting that AI technologies will not be regulated in the traditional sense, but instead may be governed through a process of consensus building without targeted and enforceable standards. This form of technological governance–often called “soft law”–is not new. In some industries, soft law governance has evolved and taken over the more traditional command and control “hard law” governance approach.

Certain transformative technologies like AI evolve faster than policymaker’s ability to keep up and as a result, at least in the US, AI’s future may not be tied to traditional legislative lawmaking, notice and rulemaking, and regulation by multiple government agencies whose missions include overseeing specific industry activities. According to those who have studied this trend, the hard law approach is gradually dying when it comes to certain tech, with the exception of technologies in highly-regulated segments such as autonomous vehicles (e.g., safety regulations) and fintech (e.g., regulatory oversight of distributed ledger tech and cryptocurrencies). Instead, an industry-led self-regulatory multistakeholder process is emerging whereby participants, including government policymakers, come up with consensus-based standards and processes that form a framework for regulating industry activities.

This process is already apparent when it comes to AI. Organizations like the IEEE have produced consensus-style standards for ethical considerations in the design and development of AI systems, and private companies are publishing their views on how they and others can self-regulate their activities, products, and services in the AI space. That is not to say that policymakers will play no role in the governance of AI. The US Congress and New York City, for example, are considering or in the process of implementing multistakeholder task forces for tackling the future of AI, workforce and education issues, and harms caused by machine learning algorithms.

A multistakeholder approach to regulating AI technologies is less likely to stifle innovation and competitiveness compared to a hard law prescriptive approach, which could involve numerous regulatory requirements, inflexible standards, and civil penalties for violations. But some view hard law governance as providing a measure of predictability that consensus approaches cannot duplicate. If multistakeholder governance is in AI’s future, stakeholders will need to develop and adopt meaningful standards and the industry will need to demonstrate a willingness to be held accountable in ways that go beyond simply appeasing vocal opponents and assuaging negative public sentiment toward AI. If they don’t, legislators may feel pressure to take a more hard law tact with AI technologies.

Industry Focus: The Rise of Data-Driven Health Tech Innovation

Artificial intelligence-based healthcare technologies have contributed to improved drug discoveries, tumor identification, diagnosis, risk assessments, electronic health records (EHR), and mental health tools, among others. Thanks in large part to AI and the availability of health-related data, health tech is one of the fastest growing segments of healthcare and one of the reasons why the sector ranks highest on many lists.

According to a 2016 workforce study by Georgetown University, the healthcare industry experienced the largest employment growth among all industries since December 2007, netting 2.3 million jobs (about an 8% increase). Fourteen percent of all US workers work in healthcare, making it the country’s largest employment center. According to the latest government figures, the US spends the most on healthcare per person ($10,348) than any other country. In fact, healthcare spending is nearly 18 percent of the US gross domestic product (GDP), a figure that is expected to increase. The healthcare IT segment is expected to grow at a CAGR greater than 10% through 2019. The number of US patents issued in 2017 for AI-infused healthcare-related inventions rose more than 40% compared to 2016.

Investment in health tech has led to the development of some impressive AI-based tools. Researchers at a major university medical center, for example, invented a way to use AI to identify from open source data the emergence of health-related events around the world. The machine learning system they’d created extracted useful information and classified it according to disease-specific taxonomies. At the time of its development ten years ago, the “supervised” and “unsupervised” natural language processing models were leaps ahead of what others were using at the time and earned the inventors national recognition. More recently, medical researchers have created a myriad of new technologies from innovative uses of machine learning technologies.

What most of the above and other health tech innovations today have in common is what drives much of the health tech sector: lots of data. Big data sets, especially labeled data, are needed by AI technologists to train and test machine learning algorithms that produce models capable of “learning” what to look for in new data. And there is no better place to find big data sets than in the healthcare sector. According to an article last year in the New England Journal of Medicine, by 2012 as much as 30% of the world’s stored data was being generated in the healthcare industry.

Traditional healthcare companies are finding value in data-driven AI. Biopharmaceutical company Roche’s recent announcement that it is acquiring software firm Flatiron Health Inc. for $1.9 billion illustrates the value of being able to access health-related data. Flatiron, led by former Google employees, makes software for real-time acquisition and analysis of oncology-specific EHR data and other structured and unstructured hospital-generated data for diagnostic and research purposes. Roche plans to leverage Flatiron’s algorithms–and all of its data–to enhance Roche’s ability to personalize healthcare strategies by way of accelerating the development of new cancer treatments. In a world powered by AI, where data is key to building new products that attract new customers, Roche is now tapped into one of the largest sources of labeled data.

Companies not traditionally in healthcare are also seeing opportunities in health-related data. Google’s AI-focused research division, for example, recently reported in Nature a promising use of so-called deep learning algorithms (a computation network structured to mimic how neurons fire in the brain) to make cardiovascular risk predictions from retinal image data. After training their model, Google scientists said they were able to identify and quantify risk factors in retinal images and generate patient-specific risk predictions.

The growth of available healthcare data and the infusion of AI health tech in the healthcare industry will challenge companies to evolve. Health tech holds the promise of better and more efficient research, manufacturing, and distribution of healthcare products and services, though some have also raised concerns about who will benefit most from these advances, bias in data sets, anonymizing data for privacy reasons, and other legal issues that go beyond healthcare, issues that will need to be addressed.

To be successful, tomorrow’s healthcare leaders may be those who have access to data that drives innovation in the health tech segment. This may explain why, according to a recent survey, healthcare CIOs whose companies plan spending increases in 2018 indicated that their investments will likely be directed first toward AI and related technologies.

“AI vs. Lawyers” – Interesting Result, Bad Headline

The recent clickbait headline “AI vs. Lawyers: The Ultimate Showdown” might lead some to believe that an artificial intelligence system and a lawyer were dueling adversaries or parties on opposite sides of a legal dispute (notwithstanding that an “intelligent” machine has not, as far as US jurisprudence is concerned, been recognized as having machine rights or standing in state or federal courts).

Follow the link, however, and you end up at LawGeex’s report titled “Comparing the Performance of Artificial Intelligence to Human Lawyers in the Review of Standard Business Contracts.” The 37-page report details a straightforward, but still impressive, comparison of the accuracy of machine learning models and lawyers in the course of performing a common legal task.

Specifically, LawGeex set out to consider, in what they call a “landmark” study, whether an AI-based model or skilled lawyers are better at issue spotting while reviewing Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs).

Issue spotting is a task that paralegals, associate attorneys, and partners at law firms and corporate legal departments regularly perform. It’s a skill learned early in one’s legal career and involves applying knowledge of legal concepts and issues to identify, in textual materials such as contract documents or court opinions, specific and relevant facts, reasoning, conclusions, and applicable laws or legal principles of concern. Issue spotting in the context of contract review may simply involve locating a provision of interest, such as a definition of “confidentiality” or an arbitration requirement in the document.

Legal tech tool using machine learning algorithms have proliferated in the last couple of years. Many involve combinations of AI technologies and typically required processing thousands of documents (often “labeled” by category or type of document) to create a model that “learns” what to look for in the next document that it processes. In the LawGeex’s study, for example, its model was trained on thousands of NDA documents. Following training, it processed five new NDAs selected by a team of advisors while 20 experienced contract attorneys were given the same five documents and four hours to review.

The results were unsurprising: LawGeex’s trained model was able to spot provisions, from a pre-determined set of 30 provisions, at a reported accuracy of 94% compared to an average of 85% for the lawyers (the highest-performing lawyer, LawGeex noted, had an accuracy of 94%, equaling the software).

Notwithstanding the AI vs. lawyers headline, LawGeek’s test results raise the question of whether the task of legal issue spotting in NDA documents has been effectively automated (assuming a mid-nineties accuracy is acceptable). And do machine learning advances like these generally portend other common tasks lawyers perform someday being performed by intelligent machines?

Maybe. But no matter how sophisticated AI tech becomes, algorithms will still require human input. And algorithms are a long way from being able to handle a client’s sometimes complex objectives, unexpected tactics opposing lawyers might deploy in adversarial situations, common sense, and other inputs that factor into a lawyer’s context-based legal reasoning and analysis duties. No AI tech is currently able to handle all that. Not yet anyway.

A Proposed AI Task Force to Confront Talent Shortage and Workforce Changes

Just over a month after House and Senate commerce committees received companion bills recommending a federal task force to globally examine the “FUTURE” of Artificial Intelligence in the United States (H.R. 4625; introduced Dec. 12, 2017), a House education and workforce committee is set to consider a bill calling for a task force assessment of the impacts of AI technologies on the US workforce.

If enacted, the “Artificial Intelligence Job Opportunities and Background Summary Act of 2018,” or the “AI JOBS Act of 2018” (H.R. 4829; introduced Jan. 18, 2018), would require the Secretary of Labor to report on impacts and growth of AI, industries and workers who may be most impacted by AI, expertise and education needed in an AI economy (compared to today), an identification of workers who will experience expanded career opportunities from AI and those who may be vulnerable to career displacement, and ways to alleviate workforce displacement and prepare a future AI workforce.

Assessing these issues now is critical. Former Senator Tom Daschle and David Beier, in a recent opinion published in The Hill, see a “dramatic set of changes” in the nature of work in America as AI technologies become more entrenched in the US economy. Citing a McKinsey’s Global Institute’s study of 800 occupations, Daschle and Beier conclude that AI technologies will not cause net job losses. Rather, job losses will likely be offset by job changes and gains in fields such as healthcare, infrastructure development, energy, and in fields that do not exist today. They cite Gartner Research estimates suggesting millions of new jobs will be created directly or indirectly as a result of the AI economy.

Already there are more AI-related jobs than high-skilled workers to fill them. One popular professional networking site currently lists over 6,000 “artificial intelligence” jobs. Chinese internet giant Tencent estimates there are only 300,000 AI experts worldwide (recent estimates by Toronto-based Element AI puts that figure at merely 90,000 AI experts). In testimony this week before a House Information Technology subcommittee, Intel’s CTO Amir Khosrowshahi said that, “Workers need to have the right skills to create AI technologies and right now we have too few workers to do the job.” Huge salaries for newly-minted computer science PhDs will drive more to the field, but job openings are likely to outpace available talent even as record numbers of students enroll in machine learning and related AI classes at top US universities.

If AI job gains shift workers disproportionately toward high-skilled jobs, the result may be continued job opportunity inequality. A 2016 study by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce found that “out of the 11.6 million jobs created in the post-recession economy, 11.5 million went to workers with at least some college education.” The study authors found that, since 2008, graduate degree workers had the most job gains (83%), predominantly in high-skill occupations, and college graduates saw the next highest job gains (57%), also in high-skill jobs. The highest job growth was seen in management, healthcare, and computer and mathematical sciences. These same fields are prime for a future influx of highly-skilled AI workers.

The US is not alone in raising concerns about job and workforce changes in an AI economy. The UK Parliament’s Artificial Intelligence Committee, for example, is confronting challenges in re-educating UK’s workforce to improve skills needed to work alongside AI systems. The US may need to do more to catch up, according to Mr. Khosrowshahi. “Current federal funding levels [in tech education],” he argued, “are not keeping pace with the rest of the industrialized world.”

The AI JOBS Act of 2018 presents an opportunity for US policymakers to develop novel approaches to address expected workforce shifts caused by an AI economy. If nothing is done, the US could find itself at a competitive disadvantage with increasing economic inequality.

New York City Task Force to Consider Algorithmic Harm

One might hear discussions about backpropagation, activation functions, and gradient descent when visiting an artificial intelligence company. But more recently, terms like bias and harm associated with AI models and products have entered tech’s vernacular. These issues also have the attention of many outside of the tech world following reports of AI systems performing better for some users than for others when making life-altering decisions about prison sentences, creditworthiness, and job hiring, among others.

Considering the recent number of accepted conference papers about algorithmic bias, AI technologists, ethicists, and lawyers seems to be proactively addressing the issue by sharing with each other various technical and other solutions. At the same time, at least one legislative body–the New York City Council–has decided to explore ways to regulate AI technology with an unstated goal of rooting out bias (or at least revealing its presence) by making AI systems more transparent.

New York City’s passage of the “Automated decision systems used by agencies” law (NYC Local Law No. 49 of 2018, effective January 11, 2018), creates a task force under the aegis of Mayor de Blasio’s office. The task force will convene no later than early May 2018 for the purpose of identifying automated decision systems used by New York City government agencies, developing procedures for identifying and remedying harm, developing a process for public review, and assessing the feasibility of archiving automated decision systems and relevant data.

The law defines an “automated decision system” as:

“a computerized implementations of algorithms, including those derived from machine learning or other data processing or artificial intelligence techniques, which are used to make or assist in making decisions.”

The law defines an “agency automated decision system” as:

“an automated decision system used by an agency to make or assist in making decisions concerning rules, policies or actions implemented that impact the public.”

While the law does not specifically call out bias, the source of algorithmic unfairness and harm can be traced in large part to biases in the data used to train algorithmic models. Data can be inherently biased when it reflects the implicit values of a limited number of people involved in its collection and labelling, or when the data chosen for a project does not represent a full cross-section of society (which is partly the result of copyright and other restrictions on access to proprietary data sets, and the ease of access to older or limited data sets where groups of people may be unrepresented or underrepresented). A machine algorithm trained on this data will “learn” the biases, and can perpetuate bias when it is asked to make decisions.

Some argue that making algorithmic black boxes more transparent is key to understanding whether an algorithm is perpetuating bias. The New York City task force could recommend that software companies that provide automated decision systems to New York City agencies make their systems transparent by disclosing details about their models (including source code) and producing the data used to create their models.

Several stakeholders have already expressed concerns about disclosing algorithms and data to regulators. What local agency, for example, would have the resources to evaluate complex AI software systems? And how will source code and data, which may embody trade secrets and include personal information, be safeguarded from inadvertent public disclosure? And what recourse will model developers have before agencies turn over algorithms (and the underlying source code and data) in response to Freedom of Information requests and court-issued subpoenas?

Others have expressed concerns that regulating at the local level may lead to disparate and varying standards and requirements, placing a huge burden on companies. For example, New York City may impose standards different from those imposed by other local governments. Already, companies are having to deal with different state regulations governing AI-infused autonomous vehicles, and will soon have to contend with European Union regulations concerning algorithmic data (GDPR Art. 22; effective May 2018) that may be different than those imposed locally.

Before their job is done, New York City’s task force will likely hear from many stakeholders, each with their own special interests. In the end, the task force’s recommendations, especially those on how to remedy harm, will receive careful scrutiny, and not just by local stakeholders, but also by policymakers far removed from New York City, because as AI technology impacts on society grow, the pressure to regulate AI systems on a national basis is likely to grow.

Information and/or references used for this post came from the following:

NYC Local Law No. 49 of 2018 (available at here) and various hearing transcripts

Letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio, Jan. 22, 2018, from AI Now and others (available here)

EU General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR), Art. 22 (“Automated Individual Decision-Making, Including Profiling”), effective May 2018.

Dixon et. al “Measuring and Mitigating Unintended Bias in Text Classification”; AAAI 2018 (accepted paper).

W. Wallach and G. Marchant, “An Agile Ethical/Legal Model for the International and National Governance of AI and Robotics”; AAAI 2018 (accepted paper).

D. Tobey, “Software Malpractice in the Age of AI: A Guide for the Wary Tech Company”; AAAI 2018 (accepted paper).

When It’s Your Data But Another’s Stack, Who Owns The Trained AI Model?

Cloud-based machine learning algorithms, made available as a service, have opened up the world of artificial intelligence to companies without the resources to organically develop their own AI models. Tech companies that provide these services promise to help companies extract insights from the company’s unique customer, employee, product, business process, and other data, and to use those insights to improve decisions, recommendations, and predictions without the company having an army of data scientists and full stack developers. Simply open an account, provide data to the service’s algorithms, train and test an algorithm, and then incorporate the final model into the company’s toolbox.

While it seems reasonable to assume a company owns a model it develops with its own data–even one based on an algorithm residing on another’s platform–the practice across the industry is not universal. Why this matters is simple: a company’s model (characterized in part by model parameters, network architecture, and architecture-specific hyperparameters associated with the model) may provide the company with an advantage over competitors. For instance, the company may have unique and proprietary data that its competitors do not have. If a company wants to extract the most value from its data, it should take steps to not only protect its valuable data, but also the models created based on that data.

How does a company know if it has not given away any rights to its own data uploaded to another’s cloud server, and that it owns the models it created based on its data? Conversely, how can a company confirm the cloud-based machine learning service has not reserved any rights to the model and data for its own use? The answer, of course, is likely embedded in multiple terms of service, privacy, and user license agreements that apply to the use of the service. If important provisions are missing, vague, or otherwise unfavorable, a company may want to look at alternative cloud-based platforms.

Consider the following example. Suppose a company wants to develop an AI model to improve an internal production process, one the company has enhanced over the years and that gives it a competitive advantage over others. Maybe its unique data set derives from a trade secret process or reflects expertise that its competitors could not easily replicate. With data in hand, the company enters into an agreement with a cloud-based machine learning service, uploads its data, and builds a unique model from the service’s many AI technologies, such as natural language processing (NLP), computer vision classifiers, and supervised learning tools. Once the best algorithms are selected, the data is used to train them and a model is created. The model can then be used in the company’s operations to improve efficiency and cut costs.

Now let us assume the cloud service provider’s terms of service (TOS) states something like the following hypothetical:

“This agreement does not impliedly or otherwise grant either party any rights in or to the other’s content, or in or to any of the other’s trade secret or rights under intellectual property laws. The parties acknowledge and agree that Company owns all of its existing and future intellectual property and other rights in and concerning its data, the applications or models Company creates using the services, and Company’s project information provided as part of using the service, and Service owns all of its existing and future intellectual property and other rights in and to the services and software downloaded by Company to access the services. Service will not access nor use Company’s data, except as necessary to provide the services to Company.”

These terms would appear to generally protect certain of the company’s rights and interest in its data and any models created using the company’s data, and further the terms indicate the machine learning service will not use the company’s data and the model trained using the data, except to provide the service. That last part–the exception–needs careful attention, because how a company defines the services it performs can be stated broadly.

Now consider the following additional hypothetical TOS:

“Company acknowledges that Service may access Company’s data submitted to the service for the purpose of developing and improving the service, and any other of Service’s current, future, similar, or related services, and Company agrees to grant Service, its licensees, affiliates, assigns, and agents an irrevocable, perpetual right and permission to use Company’s data, because without those rights and permission Service cannot provide or offer the services to Company.”

The company may not be comfortable agreeing to those terms, unless the terms are superseded with other, more favorable terms in another applicable agreement related to using the cloud-based service.

So while AI may be “the new electricity” powering large portions of the tech sector today, data is an important commodity all on its own, and so are the models behind an AI company’s products. So don’t forget to review the fine print before uploading company data to a cloud-based machine learning service.

Not Could, But Should Intelligent Machines Have Rights?

The question of whether intelligent machines of the future could own rights to their creations has been raised in the last few years, including last year at an international conference. Often, the question of rights for machines arises in the context of recognizing pictorial copyrights in images auto-generated by algorithms, but also in the context of invention (patent) rights. The progeny of these intellectual property (IP)-specific machine-rights questions suggests another, broader query: once artificial general intelligence (AGI) is achieved, should there be legal recognition of rights for intelligent machines?

In the context of IP, US laws recognize IP rights as arising from human creativity in the sciences and useful arts as a means to incentivize continuing research and creativity. Incentives flow in part from the economic nature of IP rights. Owning copyrights, for example, gives the owner the right to make and distribute copies of a creative work and to permit others to do so conditioned upon payment of a licensing fee, royalty, or some other consideration. Similarly, patent rights give a patent owner the right to exclude others from using one’s invention unless permission is granted, which again may be conditioned upon payment of a fee. In the US, employees who create copyrightable works or patentable invention are typically obligated to assign all their IP rights to their employer without further compensation beyond a regular salary. In such cases, an employer ultimately owns and benefits from its employee’s creations and discoveries.

But if we’re talking about intelligent machines, the debate about machine rights would have to take into consideration whether an intelligent machine could or would “care” about the economic benefits or have other reasons to innovate and create in the first instance. Aside from the prospect of ensuring an intelligent machine’s rights flow to its owner and are not lost, what purpose would be served by legally recognizing a future intelligent machine has rights at all? And if machine IP or other rights were recognized, what consideration would be appropriate to give future intelligent machines in a bargained-for exchange for their recognized rights, assuming the rights have value?

Some have suggested that the very notion of what it is to have “intelligence” will be protected by recognizing that intelligent machines are capable of owning rights. Put another way, if we do not recognize rights attached to the creative output of an intelligent machine, we undermine or diminish the very same rights associated with natural intelligence-generated creations. So the rights a photographer has in a photograph, or an inventor has to a new drug discovery, would be lessened if the same rights were not recognized in an intelligent machine’s similar endeavors. It seems doubtful, though, that an intelligent machine would care that it was given legally cognizable rights only because natural intelligent beings felt it important to do so to avoid diminishing the value they place on their own “intelligence.”

Despite recent advances in natural language processing (NLP), reinforcement learning (RL), and other artificial intelligence technologies, such as those in the areas of reading comprehension accuracy, computer vision object detection, and others, achieving AGI may be years if not decades away. Thus, machine rights is not a question that is especially pressing right now. On the other hand, one cannot predict when someone will announce a major breakthrough in AI and place this question front and center. So the debate about future intelligent machine rights is likely to continue. Hopefully, the debate will not distract from present-day efforts by many to move the needle toward legally recognizing important individual rights that protect people in the course of their daily interactions with existing and future AI technologies.

Evaluating and Valuing an AI Business: Don’t Forget the IP

After record-breaking funding and deals involving artificial intelligence startups in 2017, it may be tempting to invest in the next AI business or business idea without a close look beyond a company’s data, products, user-base, and talent. Indeed, big tech companies seem willing to acquire, and investors seem happy to invest in, AI startups even before the founders have built anything. Defensible business valuations, however, involve many more factors, all of which need careful consideration during early planning of a new AI business or investing in one. One factor that should never be overlooked is a company’s actual or potential intellectual property rights underpinning its products.

Last year, Andrew Ng (of Coursera and Stanford; formerly Baidu and Google Brain) spoke about a Data-Product-Users model for evaluating whether an AI business is “defensible.” In this model, data holds a prominent position because information extracted from data drives development of products, which involve algorithms and networks trained using the data. Products in turn attract users who engage with the products and generate even more data.

While an AI startup’s data, and its ability to accumulate data, will remain a key valuation factor for investors, excellent products and product ideas are crucial for long-term data generation and growth. Thus, for an AI business to be defensible in today’s hot AI market, its products, more than its data, need to be defensible. One way to accomplish that is through patents.

It can be a challenge, though, to obtain patents for certain AI technologies. That’s partly due to application stack developers and network architects relying on open source software and in-licensed third-party hardware tools with known utilities. Publicly-disclosing information about products too early, and publishing novel problem-solutions related to their development, including describing algorithms and networks and their performance and accuracy, also can hinder a company’s ability to protect product-specific IP rights around the world. US federal court decisions and US Patent and Trademark Office proceedings can also be obstacles to obtaining and defending software-related patents (as discussed here). Even so, seeking patents (as well as carefully conceived brands and associated trademarks for products) is one of the best options for demonstrating to potential investors that a company’s products or product ideas are defensible and can survive in a competitive market.

Patents of course are not just important for AI startups, but also for established tech companies that acquire startups. IBM, for example, reportedly obtained or acquired about 1,400 patents in artificial intelligence in 2017. Amazon, Cisco, Google, and Microsoft were also among the top companies receiving machine learning patents in 2017 (as discussed here).

Patents may never generate direct revenues for an AI business like a company’s products can (unless a company can find willing licensees for its patents). But protecting the IP aspects of a product’s core technology can pay dividends in other ways, and thus adds value. So when brainstorming ideas for your company’s next AI product or considering possible investment targets involving AI technologies, don’t forget to consider whether the idea or investment opportunity has any IP associated with the AI.

Recognizing Individual Rights: A Step Toward Regulating Artificial Intelligence Technologies

In the movie Marjorie | Prime (August 2017), John Hamm plays an artificial intelligence version of Marjorie’s deceased husband, visible to Marjorie as a holographic projection in her beachfront home. As Marjorie (played by Lois Smith) interacts with Hamm’s Prime through a series of one-on-one conversations, the AI improves its cognition by observing and processing Marjorie’s emotional expressions, movements, and speech. The AI also learns from interactions with Marjorie’s son-in-law (Tim Robbins) and daughter (Geena Davis), as they recount highly personal and painful episodes of their lives. Through these interactions, Prime ends up possessing a collective knowledge greater and more personal and intimate than Marjorie’s original husband ever had.

Although not directly explored in the movie’s arc, the futuristic story touches on an important present-day debate about the fate of private personal data being uploaded to commercial and government AI systems, data that theoretically could persist in a memory device long after the end of the human lives from which the data originated, for as long as its owner chooses to keep it. It also raises questions about the fate of knowledge collected by other technologies perceiving other people’s lives, and to what extent these percepts, combined with people’s demographic, psychographic, and behavioristic characteristics, would be used to create sharply detailed personality profiles that companies and governments might abuse.

These are not entirely hypothetical issues to be addressed years down the road. Companies today provide the ability to create digital doppelgangers, or human digital twins, using AI technologies. And collecting personal information from people on a daily basis as they interact with digital assistants and other connected devices is not new. But as Marjorie|Prime and several non-cinematic AI technologies available today illustrate, AI systems allow the companies who build them unprecedented means for receiving, processing, storing, and taking actions based on some of the most personal information about people, including information about their present, past, and trending or future emotional states, which marketers for years have been suggesting are the keys to optimizing advertising content.

Congress recently acknowledged that “AI technologies are rapidly evolving in capability and application throughout society,” but the US currently has no federal policy towards AI and no part of the federal government has ownership of the advancement of AI technologies. Left unchecked in an unregulated market, as is largely the case today, AI technological advancements may trend in a direction that may be inconsistent with collective values and goals.

Identifying individual rights

One of the first questions those tasked with developing laws, regulations, and policies directed toward AI should ask is, what are the basic individual rights–rights that arise in the course of people interacting with AI technologies–that should be recognized? Answering that question will be key to ensuring that enacted laws and promulgated regulations achieve one of Congress’s recently stated goals: ensuring AI technologies benefit society. Answering that question now will be key to ensuring that policymakers have the necessary foundation in front of them and will not be unduly swayed by influential stakeholders as they take up the task of deciding how and/or when to regulate AI technologies.

Identify individual rights leads to their recognition, which leads to basic legal protections, whether in the form of legislation or regulation, or, initially, as common law from judges deciding if and how to remedy a harm to a person or property caused by an AI system. Fortunately, identifying individual rights is not a formidable task. The belief that people have a right to be let alone in their private lives, for example, established the basic premise for privacy laws in the US. Those same concerns about intrusion into personal lives ought to be among the first considerations by those tasked with formulating and developing AI legislation and regulations. The notion that people have a right to be let alone has led to the identification of other individual rights that could protect people in their interactions with AI systems. These include the right of transparency and explanation, the right of audit (with the objective to reveal bias, discrimination, and content filtering, and thus maintain accountability), the right to know when you are dealing with an AI system and not a human, and the right to be forgotten (that is, mandatory deletion of one’s personal data), among others.

Addressing individual rights, however, may not persuade everyone to trust AI systems, especially when AI creators cannot explain precisely the basis for certain actions taken by trained AI technologies. People want to trust that owners and developers of AI systems that use private personal data will employ the best safeguards to protect that data. Trust, but verify, may need to play a role in policy-making efforts even if policies appear to comprehensively address individual rights. Trust might be addressed by imposing specific reporting and disclosure requirements, such as those suggested by federal lawmakers in pending federal autonomous driving legislation.

In the end, however, laws and regulations developed with privacy and other individual rights in mind, that address data security and other concerns people have about trusting their data to AI companies, will invariably include gaps, omissions, and incomplete definitions. The result may be unregulated commercial AI systems, and AI businesses finding workarounds. In such instances, people may have limited options other than to fully opt out, or accept that individual AI technology developers’ work was motivated by ethical considerations and a desire to make something that benefits society. The pressure within many tech companies and startups to push new products out to the world every day, however, could make prioritizing ethical considerations a challenge. Many organizations focused on AI technologies, some of which are listed below, are working to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Rights, trust, and ethical considerations in commercial endeavors can get overshadowed by financial interests and the subjective interests and tastes of individuals. It doesn’t help that companies and policymakers may also feel that winning the race for AI dominance is a factor to be considered (which is not to say that such a consideration is antithetical to protecting individual rights). This underscores the need for thoughtful analysis, sooner rather than later, of the need for laws and regulations directed toward AI technologies.

To learn more about some of these issues, visit the websites of the following organizations, who are active in AI policy research: Access Now, AI Now, and Future of Life.