Last year, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy announced that the US needed a bill of rights for the age of algorithms. Harms from artificial intelligence disproportionately impact marginalized communities, the office’s director and deputy director wrote in a Startup op-ed, and so government guidance was needed to protect people against discriminatory or ineffective AI.
Today, the OSTP released the Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights, after gathering input from companies like Microsoft and Palantir as well as AI auditing startups, human rights groups, and the general public. Its five principles state that people have a right to control how their data is used, to opt out of automated decision-making, to live free from ineffective or unsafe algorithms, to know when AI is making a decision about them, and to not be discriminated against by unfair algorithms.
“Technologies will come and go, but foundational liberties, rights, opportunities, and access need to be held open, and it’s the government’s job to help ensure that’s the case,” Alondra Nelson, OSTP deputy director for science and society, told Startup. “This is the White House saying that workers, students, consumers, communities, everyone in this country should expect and demand better from our technologies.”
However, unlike the better known US Bill of Rights, which comprises the first ten amendments to the constitution, the AI version will not have the force of law—it’s a non-binding white paper.
The White House’s blueprint for AI rights is primarily aimed at the federal government. It will change how algorithms are used only if it steers how government agencies acquire and deploy AI technology, or helps parents, workers, policymakers, or designers ask tough questions about AI systems. It has no power over the large tech companies that arguably have the most power in shaping the deployment of machine learning and AI technology.
The document released today resembles the flood of AI ethics principles released by companies, nonprofits, democratic governments, and even the Catholic church in recent years. Their tenets are usually directionally right, using words like transparency, explainability, and trustworthy, but they lack teeth and are too vague to make a difference in people’s everyday lives.
Nelson of OSTP says the Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights differs from past recitations of AI principles because it’s intended to be translated directly into practice. The past year of listening sessions was intended to move the project beyond vagaries, Nelson says. “We too understand that principles aren’t sufficient,” Nelson says. “This is really just a down payment. It’s just the beginning and the start.”
The OSTP received emails from about 150 people about its project and heard from about 130 additional individuals, businesses, and organizations that responded to a request for information earlier this year. The final blueprint is intended to protect people from discrimination based on race, religion, age, or any other class of people protected by law. It extends the definition of sex to include “pregnancy, childbirth, and related medical conditions,” a change made in response to concerns from the public about abortion data privacy.