The order requires that companies building the most advanced AI systems perform safety tests, a practice called “red teaming,” and notify the government of the results before rolling out their products. The order uses the Defense Production Act — a 1950 law that has been leveraged in recent crises including the covid pandemic and the baby formula shortage — to require companies share red-teaming results with the government.
The order harnesses federal purchasing power, directing the government to use risk management practices when using AI that has the potential to impact people’s rights or safety, according to a draft of the order viewed by The Washington Post. Agencies will be required to continuously monitor and evaluate deployed AI, according to the draft.
The order also directs the government to develop standards for companies to label AI-generated content, often referred to as watermarking, and calls on various agencies to grapple with how the technology could disrupt sectors ranging from education to health services and defense.
The order comes amid a flurry of efforts to craft new laws, conduct consumer protection probes and collaborate with international regulators to curb the risks of AI. The action will have broad implications for almost every agency within the federal government, along with a host of Silicon Valley companies racing to build advanced AI systems.
White House deputy chief of staff Bruce Reed called it “the strongest set of actions any government in the world has ever taken on AI safety, security, and trust.”
“It’s the next step in an aggressive strategy to do everything on all fronts to harness the benefits of AI and mitigate the risks,” Reed said in a statement.
Implementing the order marks a significant test for the Biden administration, which has struggled to live up to promises of crafting guardrails for powerful Silicon Valley companies. Biden and Vice President Harris have pledged since they were on the campaign trail to address competition in tech and the harms of social media, signaling an intention to take a tougher line against the tech industry than the Obama administration.
But there are limits to how much the Biden administration can achieve without an act of Congress. Besides nominating key enforcers with a history of antagonism toward Silicon Valley, the White House has taken scant action on tech issues. Congress, meanwhile, hasn’t passed any major tech legislation, despite years of attempts to craft rules around privacy, online safety and emerging technologies.
In a sign of these restrictions, the order urges Congress to “pass bipartisan data privacy legislation to protect all Americans, especially kids,” according to the White House summary — a move that serves as a tacit acknowledgment of Biden’s constraints.
A senior Biden administration official, who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity ahead of the order’s unveiling on Monday, said the president has been clear in calling for Congress to pass bipartisan legislation around AI.
“We are not at all suggesting this is the end of the road on AI governance, and we look forward to engaging with the Congress to go further,” the official said.
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director Arati Prabhakar both said at a Washington Post Live event last week that Congress has a role to play in crafting AI legislation too.
“There’s probably a limit to what you can do by executive order,” Schumer said. “They are concerned, and they’re doing a lot regulatorily, but everyone admits the only real answer is legislative.”
Schumer is leading a bipartisan group of lawmakers focused on crafting AI legislation, but they are likely months away from unveiling a proposal. He is expected to host a pair of AI Insight Forums this week, which have gathered top industry executives, civil society leaders and prominent AI researchers for discussions about the need for federal AI guardrails as well as greater funding for research.
The executive order directs multiple government agencies to ease barriers to high-skilled immigration, amid a global battle for AI talent. Silicon Valley executives for years have pressured Washington to take steps to improve the process for high-skilled immigrants, but experts say they hope Congress will follow the Biden administration’s lead and consider new immigration laws amid its debate over AI.
“This is perhaps the most significant action that will supercharge American competitiveness,” said Divyansh Kaushik, associate director for emerging technologies and national security at the Federation of American Scientists.
The Biden administration is acting as other governments around the world plow ahead with efforts to regulate advanced AI systems. The European Union is expected to reach a deal by the end of this year on its AI Act, a wide-ranging package that aims to protect consumers from potentially dangerous applications of AI. Meanwhile China has new regulations for generative AI systems, which attempt to boost the growth of the country’s generative AI tools while retaining a grip on what information the systems make available to the public.
Those steps have caused some lawmakers in Washington to worry that the United States has fallen behind other countries in setting new regulations for the technology.
“I would push back on any notion that we are behind anyone,” said the senior Biden administration official, adding that the administration sees AI policy as an area where countries have “an opportunity to work together.”
The executive order comes just days before Harris is expected to promote the United States’ vision for AI regulation at Britain’s AI Summit, a two-day event that will gather leaders from around the world to talk about how to respond to the most risky applications of the technology. The executive order signals that the Biden administration is taking a different approach than the United Kingdom, which to date has signaled a light-touch posture toward AI companies and is focusing its summit on long-term threats of AI, including the possibility that the technology overpowers humans.
Reggie Babin, a senior counsel focused on AI regulation at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, said the executive order sends a “signal to the world” about U.S. priorities for reining in AI.
Until now, “a lot of people have seen the Americans as I don’t want to say absent, but certainly not playing a central role in terms of laying out a clear vision of enforceable policy in the way that our status as a global leader might suggest that we should,” said Babin, who previously served as chief counsel to Schumer.
The Biden administration first announced it was working on the executive action in July, when it secured voluntary commitments from companies including OpenAI and Google to test their advanced models before they are released to the public and commit to sharing data about the safety of their systems.