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.

The AI Summit New York City: Takeaways For the Legal Profession

This week, business, technology, and academic thought leaders in Artificial Intelligence are gathered at The AI Summit in New York City, one of the premier international conferences offered for AI professionals. Below, I consider two of the three takeaways from Summit Day 1, published yesterday by AI Business, from the perspective of lawyers looking for opportunities in the burgeoning AI market.

“1. The tech landscape is changing fast – with big implications for businesses”

If a year from now your law practice has not fielded at least one query from a client about AI technologies, you are probably going out of your way to avoid the subject. It is almost universally accepted that AI technologies in one form or another will impact nearly every industry. Based on recently-published salary data, the industries most active in AI are tech (think Facebook, Amazon, Alphabet, Microsoft, Netflix, and many others), financial services (banks and financial technology companies or “fintech”), and computer infrastructure (Amazon, Nvidia, Intel, IBM, and many others; in areas such as chips for growing computational speed and throughput, and cloud computing for big data storage needs).

Of course, other industries are also seeing plenty of AI development. The automotive industry, for example, has already begun adopting machine learning, computer vision, and other AI technologies for autonomous vehicles. The robotics and chatbot industries have seen great strides lately, both in terms of humanoid robotic development, and consumer-machine interaction products such as stationary and mobile digital assistants (e.g., personal robotic assistants, as well as utility devices like autonomous vacuums). And of course the software as a service industry, which leverages information from a company’s own data, such as human resources data, process data, healthcare data, etc., seems to offers new software solutions to improve efficiencies every day.

All of this will translate into consumer adoption of specific AI technologies, which is reported to already be at 10% and growing. The fast pace of technology development and adoption may translate into new business opportunities for lawyers, especially for those who invest time to learning about AI technologies. After all, as in any area of law, understanding the challenges facing clients is essential for developing appropriate legal strategies, as well as for targeting business development resources.

“2. AI is a disruptive force today, not tomorrow – and business must adapt”

Adapt or be left behind is a cautionary tale, but one with plenty of evidence demonstrating that it holds true in many situations.

Lawyers and law firms as an institution are generally slow to change, often because things that disrupt the status quo are viewed through a cautionary lens. This is not surprising, given that a lawyer’s work often involves thoughtful spotting of potential risks, and finding ways to address those risks. A fast-changing business landscape racing to keep up with the latest in AI technologies may be seen as inherently risky, especially in the absence of targeted laws and regulations providing guidance, as is the case today in the AI industry. Even so, exploring how to adapt one’s law practice to a world filled with AI technologies should be near the top of every lawyer’s list of things to consider for 2018.

How Privacy Law’s Beginnings May Suggest An Approach For Regulating Artificial Intelligence

A survey conducted in April 2017 by Morning Consult suggests most Americans are in favor of regulating artificial intelligence technologies. Of 2,200 American adults surveyed, 71% said they strongly or somewhat agreed that there should be national regulation of AI, while only 14% strongly or somewhat disagreed (15% did not express a view).

Technology and business leaders speaking out on whether to regulate AI fall into one of two camps: those who generally favor an ex post, case-by-case, common law approach, and those who prefer establishing a statutory and regulatory framework that, ex ante, sets forth clear do’s and don’ts and penalties for violations. (If you’re interested in learning about the challenges of ex post and ex ante approaches to regulation, check out Matt Scherer’s excellent article, “Regulating Artificial Intelligence Systems: Risks, Challenges, Competencies, and Strategies,” published in the Harvard Journal of Law and Technology (2016)).

Advocates for a proactive regulatory approach caution that the alternative is fraught with predictable danger. Elon Musk for one, notes that, “[b]y the time we’re reactive in A.I., regulation’s too late.” Others, including leaders of some of the biggest AI technology companies in the industry, backed by lobbying organizations like the Information Technology Industry Council (ITI), feel that the hype surrounding AI does not justify quick Congressional action at this time.

Musk criticized this wait-and-see approach. “Normally, the way regulation’s set up,” he said, “a whole bunch of bad things happen, there’s a public outcry, and then after many years, a regulatory agency is set up to regulate that industry. There’s a bunch of opposition from companies who don’t like being told what to do by regulators, and it takes forever. That in the past has been bad but not something which represented a fundamental risk to the existence of civilization.”

Assuming AI regulation is inevitable, how should regulators (and legislators) approach such a formidable task? After all, AI technologies come in many forms, and their uses extend across multiple industries, including some already burdened with regulation. The history of privacy law may provide the answer.

Without question, privacy concerns, and privacy laws, touch on AI technology use and development. That’s because so much of today’s human-machine interactions involving AI are powered by user-provided or user-mined data. Search histories, images people appear in on social media, purchasing habits, home ownership details, political affiliations, and many other data points are well-known to marketers and others whose products and services rely on characterizing potential customers using, for example, machine learning algorithms, convolutional neural networks, and other AI tools. In the field of affective computing, human-robot and human-chatbot interactions are driven by a person’s voice, facial features, heart rate, and other physiological features, which are the percepts that the AI system collects, processes, stores, and uses when deciding actions to take, such as responding to user queries.

Privacy laws evolved from a period during late nineteenth century America when journalists were unrestrained in publishing sensational pieces for newspapers or magazines, basically the “fake news” of the time. This Yellow Journalism, as it was called, prompted legal scholars to express a view that people had a “right to be let alone,” setting in motion the development of a new body of law involving privacy. The key to regulating AI, as it was in the development of regulations governing privacy, may be the recognition of a specific personal right that is, or is expected to be, infringed by AI systems.

In the case of privacy, attorneys Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis (later, Justice Brandeis) were the first to articulate a personal privacy right. In The Right of Privacy, published in the Harvard Law Review in 1890, Warren and Brandeis observed that “the press is overstepping in every direction the obvious bounds of propriety and of decency. Gossip…has become a trade.” They contended that “for years there has been a feeling that the law must afford some remedy for the unauthorized circulation of portraits of private persons.” They argued that a right of privacy was entitled to recognition because “in every [] case the individual is entitled to decide whether that which is his shall be given to the public.” A violation of the person’s right of privacy, they wrote, should be actionable.

Soon after, courts began recognizing the right of privacy in civil cases. By 1960, in his seminal review article entitled Privacy (48 Cal.L.Rev 383), William Prosser wrote, “In one form or another,” the right of privacy “was declared to exist by the overwhelming majority of the American courts.” That led to uniform standards. Some states enacted limited or sweeping state-specific statutes, replacing the common law with statutory provisions and penalties. Federal appeals courts weighed in when conflicts between state law arose. This slow progression from initial recognition of a personal privacy right in 1890, to today’s modern statutes and expansive development of common law, won’t appeal to those pushing for regulation of AI now.

Even so, the process has to begin somewhere, and it could very well start with an assessment of the personal rights that should be recognized arising from interactions with or the use of AI technologies. Already, personal rights recognized by courts and embodied in statutes apply to AI technologies. But there is one personal right, potentially unique to AI technologies, that has been suggested: the right to know why (or how) an AI technology took a particular action (or made a decision) affecting a person.

Take, for example, an adverse credit decision by a bank that relies on machine learning algorithms to decide whether a customer should be given credit. Should that customer have the right to know why (or how) the system made the credit-worthiness decision? FastCompany writer Cliff Kuang explored this proposition in his recent article, “Can A.I. Be Taught to Explain Itself?” published in the New York Times (November 21, 2017).

If AI could explain itself, the banking customer might want to ask it what kind of training data was used and whether the data was biased, or whether there was an errant line of python coding to blame, or whether the AI gave the appropriate weight to the customer’s credit history. Given the nature of AI technologies, some of these questions, and even more general ones, may only be answered by opening the AI black box. But even then it may be impossible to pinpoint how the AI technology made its decision. In Europe, “tell me why/how” regulations are expected to become effective in May 2018. As I will discuss in a future post, many practical obstacles face those wishing to build a statute or regulatory framework around the right of consumers to demand from businesses that their AI explain why it made or took a particular adverse action.

Regulation of AI will likely happen. In fact, we are already seeing the beginning of direct legislative/regulatory efforts aimed at the autonomous driving industry. Whether interest in expanding those efforts to other AI technologies grows or lags may depend at least in part on whether people believe they have personal rights at stake in AI, and whether those rights are being protected by current laws and regulations.

Do Artificial Intelligence Technologies Need Regulating?

At some point, yes. But when? And how?

Today, AI is largely unregulated by federal and state governments. That may change as technologies incorporating AI continue to expand into communications, education, healthcare, law, law enforcement, manufacturing, transportation, and other industries, and prominent scientists as well as lawmakers continue raising concerns about unchecked AI.

The only Congressional proposals directly aimed at AI technologies so far have been limited to regulating Highly Autonomous Vehicles (HAVs, or self-driving cars). In developing those proposals, the House Energy and Commerce Committee brought stakeholders to the table in June 2017 to offer their input. In other areas of AI development, however, technologies are reportedly being developed without the input of those whose knowledge and experience might provide acceptable and appropriate direction.

Tim Hwang, an early adopter of AI technology in the legal industry, says individual artificial intelligence researchers are “basically writing policy in code” that reflects personal perspectives or biases. Kate Darling, the co-founder of AI Now and an intellectual property attorney, speaking with Wired magazine, assessed the problem this way: “Who gets a seat at the table in the design of these systems? At the moment, it’s driven by engineering and computer science experts who are designing systems that touch everything from criminal justice to healthcare to education. But in the same way that we wouldn’t expect a federal judge to optimize a neural network, we shouldn’t be expecting an engineer to understand the workings of the criminal justice system.”

“Who gets a seat at the table in the design of these systems? At the moment, it’s driven by engineering and computer science experts who are designing systems that touch everything from criminal justice to healthcare to education. But in the same way that we wouldn’t expect a federal judge to optimize a neural network, we shouldn’t be expecting an engineer to understand the workings of the criminal justice system.”

Those concerns frame part of the debate over regulating the AI industry, but timing is another big question. Shivon Zilis, fund investor at Bloomberg Beta, cautions that AI technology is here and will become a very powerful technology, so the public discussion of regulation needs to happen now. Others, like Alphabet chairman Eric Schmidt, considers the government regulation debate premature.

A fundamental challenge for Congress and government regulators is how to regulate AI. As AI technologies advance from the simple to the super-intelligent, a one size fits all regulatory approach could cause more problems than it addresses. On the one end of the AI technology spectrum, simple AI systems may need little regulatory oversight. But on the other end of the spectrum, super-intelligent autonomous systems may be viewed as having rights, and thus a focused set of regulations may be more appropriate. The Information Technology Industry Council (ITI), a lobbying group, “encourage[s] governments to evaluate existing policy tools and use caution before adopting new laws, regulations, or taxes that may inadvertently or unnecessarily impede the responsible development and use of AI.”

Regulating the AI industry will require careful thought and planning. Government regulations are hard to get right, and they rarely please everyone. Regulate too much and economic activity can be stifled. Regulate too little (or not at all) and the consequences could be worse. Congress and regulators will also need to assess the impacts of AI-specific regulations on an affected industry years and decades down the road, a difficult task when market trends and societal acceptance of AI will likely alter the trajectory of the AI industry in possibly unforeseen ways.

But we may be getting ahead of ourselves. Kate Darling recently noted that stakeholders have not yet agreed on basic definitions for AI. For example, there is not even a universally-accepted definition today for what is a “robot.”

Sources:
June 2017 House Energy and Commerce Committee, Hearings on Self-Driving Cars

Wired Magazine: Why AI is Still Waiting for its Ethics Transplant

TechCrunch

Futurism

Gizmodo