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Biden administration announces new guidance for how federal agencies can use AI


The Biden administration released its official guidelines today for how the federal government should be using artificial intelligence. As the technology rapidly develops, they're asking agencies to have safeguards in place, but also to try to use AI's benefits. NPR White House correspondent Deepa Shivaram is here to talk about all of this. Hey, Deepa.


CHANG: OK, so the government - it's already using artificial intelligence in different ways, right? So what are these new rules adding to that process?

SHIVARAM: Yeah, that is right. This is a pretty significant step here because, with this memo, the government is sending a message for how we can use AI in safe ways. And keep in mind that's something that private companies are grappling with and other...

CHANG: Sure.

SHIVARAM: ...Countries are trying to figure out. So this memo says that federal agencies have until December 1 to make sure the artificial intelligence that they're using has appropriate safeguards, which includes testing the technology and assessing how it functions.

So for example, when you're in line for security at the airport - right? - you can opt out of that facial recognition technology and not lose your place in line. Or if there's AI being used in medical diagnoses at VA hospitals or something, there's still a human involved in that process to oversee it. So if the agency is using this AI technology and they can't apply those required safeguards, then they're supposed to stop using the technology altogether.

CHANG: Wait, but what happens if agencies break the rules? Like, is there any sense of accountability if things go wrong?

SHIVARAM: Yeah, I mean, the push for transparency is a big part of these guidelines, too. Agencies are required to share how they're using AI online and what the risks are that come with it. I talked to Alex Reeve Givens, who leads the Center for Democracy and Technology, about this. And she says that requiring agencies to share online how they're using AI is really important because it opens the door for more scrutiny and for the public to get involved. But she still says there's more work to be done.

ALEX REEVE GIVENS: So I see this as the first step. What's going to come after is very detailed practice guides and expectations around what effective auditing looks like, for example.

SHIVARAM: And Ailsa, I mean, AI can be applied in so many ways, right? So the guidance from the administration is pretty broad overall. There is supposed to be rigorous testing of the technology before it's used. And the government is also requiring each agency to have a chief artificial intelligence officer, which is a senior role that will oversee how each agency is using AI.

CHANG: Oh, fancy, fancy. OK, well, I know that the Biden administration has insisted that they're being really adamant about limiting the risks of AI.


CHANG: But, you know, as we're talking about, there are some real benefits to AI. So how does this new guidance address that?

SHIVARAM: I mean, yeah. I mean, there's a huge part of this, too, that's about innovation, right? Because there is a desire for agencies to use AI to make government processes more efficient. And that could be something as small as a chatbot helping you on a government website, but also in bigger things, like using the technology to help assess structural damage after a hurricane. And there are so many opportunities that come with AI, and so the hope here is that this guidance will maybe encourage agencies to be innovative, too.

CHANG: OK, so what's coming next on this front?

SHIVARAM: Yeah. Well, the big thing to keep an eye on is the procurement process. So you know, what will the rules be for AI companies that get these government contracts? And those rules will be finalized in the coming months. That could really set the stage for how companies can safely and ethically use AI.

And I think the other thing I'm watching out for is how agencies will recruit and hire people in the AI space to come work for the government. The guidance says that they want to hire at least a hundred people in this field by this summer. They don't have the AI personnel right now, and they have to compete with the private sector to hire up. Like you mentioned, this technology is already rapidly changing...

CHANG: Right.

SHIVARAM: ...And the administration is trying to lay the groundwork here so it can keep up.

CHANG: That is NPR's Deepa Shivaram. Thank you, Deepa.

SHIVARAM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Deepa Shivaram is a multi-platform political reporter on NPR's Washington Desk.