Obama is the AI czar we need for global cooperation

Obama met with tech leaders and discussed key issues with leading advocacy groups and policy think tanks. It was the first time the current White House had reached out to Obama for direct help on policymaking.
Last Updated : 10 November 2023, 05:39 IST
Last Updated : 10 November 2023, 05:39 IST

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Not long after President Joe Biden unveiled his sweeping executive order on artificial intelligence, it emerged he had enlisted some notable outside help to craft it.

Over about five months, according to Jeff Zients, Biden’s chief of staff, former President Barack Obama quietly advised the best way forward. Obama met with tech leaders and discussed key issues with leading advocacy groups and policy think tanks. It was the first time the current White House had reached out to Obama for direct help on policymaking. The result was a deep, detailed plan for the adoption and safeguarding of AI. Running to almost 20,000 words, the document was lauded for both its thoroughness and its ambition.

Speaking to technology news site The Verge, Obama said one of the tech bosses he met with indicated that the introduction of AI will be as disruptive as electricity. If that proves to be true, the challenges will be formidable. Obama is the right person to help guide us through them.

Consider the many questions. How do you regulate AI without stifling innovation? How do you ensure global cooperation and standards? How do you protect vulnerable industries and job markets? How do you make sure tight controls at home don’t result in geopolitical rivals like China surging ahead? It will take a leader of exceptional talent to even begin to tackle all — or any — of that. Obama is uniquely qualified and seems invigorated by the challenge.

While Donald Trump is often viewed as the Twitter president, it was Obama who was the first to be elected thanks to the then-emerging medium of social media. With a tech-savvy young campaign staff, Obama was able to secure many small donations from a vast number of people, raising his profile in a way that might have proved more difficult with traditional media outlets alone.

In office, he was an extremely digitally literate president. He appointed the federal government’s first chief technology officer and later directed the creation of the US Digital Service — a department, inspired by a similar outfit in the UK, that was responsible for revamping many of the government’s online services. If you’ve visited government websites that don’t look like relics from the mid-1990s, you can often thank the service. While it had a troubled launch, Healthcare.gov went on to enroll tens of millions of Americans in health care.

These feats were only possible thanks to Obama’s concerted effort to get capable technology brains into government jobs and to make public service a more appealing prospect for those who could otherwise pursue better pay in Silicon Valley. The government had been leveled up. “We are far better equipped to handle the AI revolution because President Obama laid those foundations,” said Jennifer Pahlka, who served as US deputy chief technology officer under Obama, when I spoke to her this week. Obama seems ready to do it again, telling The Verge the country needs “hotshot young people who are interested in AI to do a stint outside of the companies themselves and go work for government for a while.”

Pahlka’s new book, Recoding America, isn’t ostensibly about artificial intelligence, but it does highlight the work that needs to be done within government to overcome some of the bureaucracies that might slow down progress as America seeks to adopt and contain AI. Encouragingly, the book appeared recently on Obama’s shared reading list in which he detailed some sources he had used to “shape my perspective” over the past year. “He’s trying to say something with that list,” Pahlka suggests, noting Obama’s careful balance of material highlighting AI’s harms but also sources that speak of its potential.

His respect of technology companies and the work they do made Obama a mostly popular figure in Silicon Valley, so much so that when he left the White House, some speculated that he might become a venture capitalist. During his time in office, he held town halls at top companies such as LinkedIn and Meta Platforms Inc. and was the star draw at 2016’s South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas, one of the premier technology events of the year. When Obama made a historic trip to Cuba, he took with him Brian Chesky, the chief executive officer of Airbnb Inc. (Following a stint at Amazon.com Inc., Jay Carney, Obama’s former press secretary, is now Airbnb’s head of policy — one of several former Obama figures to find roles in tech.) Biden’s relationship with big tech is rockier.

But Obama knows where Silicon Valley thinking hits its limits. “Government will never run the way Silicon Valley runs because, by definition, democracy is messy,” he said in 2016. “This is a big, diverse country with a lot of interests and a lot of disparate points of view. And part of government’s job, by the way, is dealing with problems that nobody else wants to deal with.”

Obama’s record on tech is not without its blemishes, however. As president, he oversaw some of the most egregiously harmful use of cutting-edge tech, with drone warfare and the NSA’s dragnet of surveillance. And those who think technology companies have become too powerful point to Obama upholding an antitrust status quo that failed to challenge big tech deals, such as Facebook’s acquisitions of WhatsApp and Instagram.

It must also be said that one technology that can be enormously harmful, social media, exploded under his watch. As he benefited from the enormous boost it gave to his campaigning and reputation, he was perhaps less focused on the emerging harms of hate speech and misinformation.

These are subjects he seems to be thinking about deeply now. At a recent event held in Chicago to commemorate the 15th anniversary of his election victory, Obama was in a reflective mood, one of his former staffers told me, discussing his time in office and the current state of the world, then asking: “Was there something else I could have done?”

Well, if Obama is feeling regret, then he should channel that energy toward dealing with AI, which will come to encompass many issues we know Obama cares deeply about. It will affect fairness in policing, in voting rights, in job creation and workforce diversity. It will transform education — and access to it. It is already upending creative industries (the Obamas own a production company) and the legal profession (he used to be a lawyer). He has been “deepfaked” perhaps more than any other individual.

You won’t find a more capable figure who can harness the best of Silicon Valley while understanding how vital it is to keep such advancements under sensible control.

Published 10 November 2023, 05:39 IST

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