After long-held theories about any role former President Barack Obama potentially plays in the current administration, a new report reveals his involvement in an executive order issued this week.
NBC News reported that Obama “quietly advised the White House over the past five months on its strategy to address artificial intelligence, engaging behind the scenes with tech companies and holding Zoom meetings with top West Wing aides.”
The months-long effort built up to Monday when President Joe Biden signed an executive order establishing sweeping new government oversight over artificial intelligence.
The outlet cited “aides to both men” as sources of the information and claimed this was the first time Biden “tapped his former boss to help shape a key policy initiative.”
“President Biden is rolling out the strongest set of actions any government in the world has ever taken on AI safety, security and trust,” White House Deputy Chief of Staff Bruce Reed told reporters. “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 also indicated that the impetus for the move grew from fears over an AI villain in a film the president had seen, “Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One.”
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The new order establishes “standards for AI safety and security, protects Americans’ privacy, advances equity and civil rights, stands up for consumers and workers, promotes innovation and competition, advances American leadership around the world, and more,” according to a White House press release.
White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients recalled that Biden had said, “You have to move fast here, not at normal government pace or normal private-sector pace, because the technology is moving so fast.”
Aides told NBC News that Biden and Obama shared similar views on AI and its potential use – both good and bad. The two men reportedly discussed the technology in June over a phone call and “agreed on the goal of maximizing the technology while limiting the risks,” according to the aides.
Their “shared vision” included the view that the federal government should act quickly in corralling the rapidly-developing technology.
Biden and Obama reportedly had a lunch together at the White House to continue their discussion following a request that the 44th president work with the administration’s team in developing a new policy.
“Over the rest of the summer and into fall, Obama kept in regular touch with Zients, deputy chief of staff Bruce Reed and national security adviser Jake Sullivan to offer input on the executive order, Biden and Obama aides said. They said their two teams were in touch about a dozen times, including as the administration finalized the order ahead of Monday’s announcement,” NBC News noted.
“Obama was particularly helpful in laying the groundwork for tech companies to voluntarily sign on to have their AI models pressure-tested before they’re released to the public, Biden and Obama aides said,” according to the outlet. “Part of his approach was to urge industry leaders to consider risks beyond national security, including information integrity, bias and discrimination.”
The former president communicated with advocacy groups as well as academics and researchers who had AI interests and then used the information he gathered to help the White House build the framework of the new policy, according to the aides.
“He helped really set the frame of mind that companies can innovate while also being responsible and that companies need to be accountable,” Zients said.
Evidently, Obama had been concerned about the issue since his second term. Indeed, before he left office, his administration released a report on the “future directions and considerations for AI.”
Obama wrote about this week’s executive order in a piece published on Medium.
“When social media was on the rise, most decisions were made by a small group of people with almost no oversight. Those people created platforms that helped us connect in new and exciting ways, but they also failed to anticipate the harm their tools could do. By the time it became clear, much of the damage had already been done. We can’t make the same mistake again, and the industry leaders I talk to agree. The stakes are too high,” he wrote.
“If we want AI to be a force for good, we have to be able to stand for something bigger — not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s the smart thing to do,” he concluded. “I applaud the Biden administration for taking this important step, and hope it’s just the beginning.”