Remarks of Alexander Macgillivray at the State of the Net Conference
Remarks as Prepared for Delivery
Thank you for that kind introduction, Shane. And thank you to State of the Net for having me here today.
It’s great to be back here and see all of you. It is not every day I get to be around a collection of techie-policy-legal folks. We are a rare breed and it is always nice to be among my type of geeks.
As Shane mentioned, I lead the Office of the U.S. Chief Technology Officer (CTO). I served in a similar role in the Obama-Biden Administration.
A lot has changed since then. I’ll talk a bit about that and then about privacy, AI, and broadband access, three things the CTO shop is doing a lot of work on.
At the beginning of the Obama Administration, there were a lot fewer technologists in the Executive Office of the President. Those who were there were a bit more siloed. And often people thought there was a bright line between “tech” issues, like network neutrality, and other government policy issues such as healthcare.
But because of some hard-earned experience and the work of so many folks in this room, there’s now been a big shift.
Today, people across the government understand that in the modern age, all policy is tech policy.
Today, it is abundantly clear why technologists are important to shaping policy … and to its implementation.
Today, we know that the “technologists” required to develop sound government policy take many forms. From data scientists, like U.S. Chief Data Scientist and Deputy US CTO Denice Ross, to computer scientists, to tech-focused lawyers, and social scientists.
In the Biden-Harris Administration, there are many technologists across the White House and in senior positions across federal agencies. The U.S. Digital Service, the General Services Administration’s Tech Transformation Service, the Federal CIO and agency CIOs and digital services teams, and other federal techies are focused on making government services better and more modern.
We’ve made a good start. We haven’t yet gotten to a government where there are as many values-led technologists as there are lawyers and economists, but we are moving in the right direction.
Last September, the White House released its Principles for Enhancing Competition and Tech Platform Accountability and, in January, the President called on Congress to “to come together to pass strong bipartisan legislation to hold Big Tech accountable” in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal.
As the President has said, we still have much to do to “finish the job.”
For us in the CTO office, that job is pushing forward responsible innovation. Where innovation doesn’t just happen for innovation’s sake but as a way to purposefully advance core American values such as opportunity, privacy and equity. Where technology is aligned with and bolsters democratic principles and human rights. As DJ Patil, the first U.S. Chief Data Scientist used to say, we need to move purposefully and fix things, not move fast and break things.
We need innovation that benefits all Americans. Technology that uplifts all people, strengthens democracy, safeguards civil rights, includes everyone, and brings prosperity widely.
We can advance these values by pursuing purposeful technological innovation and strong protections for Americans’ rights and safety.
Privacy is an important foundation. At the State of the Union, President Biden made it clear that we need serious federal protections for Americans’ privacy.
The President’s push for strong privacy legislation comes against the backdrop of a litany of privacy horror stories. To name just a few health privacy related stories:
Ad targeting platforms have been selling the targeting of people with clinical depression.
Apps have been leaking people’s health information to other companies without users’ permission or even knowledge.
Data brokers have been selling mobile IDs tied to people who are “actively pregnant,” which is especially worrisome given the attacks on reproductive rights we are seeing.
The problem is clear. And so is the urgent need for action.
We all know that we need limits on the data that companies can collect, use, and share. That means limits on collection and the use of data related to your internet history, your personal communications, your location, and your health, genetic and biometric data.
It’s not enough for companies to disclose what data they’re collecting. Much of that data shouldn’t be collected in the first place. And these protections need to be especially strong for children, who are particularly vulnerable to harm.
Unchecked data collection by companies also can end up in the hands of our adversaries and competitors and be exploited in ways that undermine our economic and national security.
We’re taking big steps to address these problems.
The President urged Congress to pass strong federal privacy legislation.
The United States and 60 partners around the globe made clear that individuals should have their privacy protected online in the Declaration for the Future of the Internet.
And the White House elevated privacy as a central principle in the Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights, which I’ll say more about shortly.
We’ve used prize challenges and research strategies to encourage the development of privacy-enhancing technologies, which could allow people and society to benefit from use of data while maintaining privacy.
And we’ve recruited a leading expert on privacy – and tech policy more broadly – Deirdre Mulligan, to help lead this work as a U.S. Deputy CTO.
Other parts of the Federal Government are also taking key steps on privacy.
The Federal Trade Commission has shown leadership in protecting Americans’ privacy and civil rights against harms from excessive data collection, the use of automated systems, and defaults in gaming platforms that allow unknown adults to digitally interact with kids. They announced an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking to crack down on commercial surveillance and the data-gathering practices that underpin it. And they recently stood up a new Office of Technology that will continue advancing the FTC’s technical expertise and capacity to protect Americans’ privacy. And, they are hiring. If you are a technologist who has always been FTC-curious, now is the time! If you are friends with one, tell them to apply!
And, we are also working to make sure that the data that is collected is used in ways that are fair and equitable – in fact, we are finding ways to use data to advance equity. That means putting in place new practices to understand data such as people’s race and gender, and then use that data to identify and fix disparities in federal programs. We are also are studying how state, Tribal, local, territorial law enforcement agencies across the country are handling data about police activities in order to help inform more fair and just policing.
We’ve seen the good ways data is used to help people and make life easier. But no one in this room is naïve to the fact that data is often used to power AI systems that are used in concerning ways.
There’s a lot of talk right now about sentient AI and future doomsday scenarios about robots taking over the world. But the truth is that other harms – to our safety, rights, opportunities, and access – are happening right now.
Women’s job applications are being unjustly rejected by AI.
Students are being falsely accused of cheating by automated systems.
Black Americans are being denied lifesaving healthcare by algorithms.
We can’t afford to wait to mitigate algorithmic harms and discrimination. All Americans should fully benefit from AI systems that strengthen democracy, advance equity, and create a more secure and prosperous world. And President Biden has stated that we need more transparency into the algorithms to stop them being used to discriminate against Americans.
And he’s made clear that this is not just an aspiration – it’s the policy of the United States Government.
Last month, President Biden signed an executive order that directs the federal government to procure and use automated systems in a manner that advances equity. He also directed federal agencies to affirmatively advance civil rights, including by seeking opportunities to protect the people from algorithmic discrimination.
We’ve laid out a way to get this directive done.
Last fall, we published principles and practices that can make sure that AI systems live up to these important aspirations. Our office, with Dr. Alondra Nelson’s Science and Society Division, led the development of the Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights. This document lays out the rights that people should have to protect us from the harms of automated systems. It’s an articulation that Americans should expect better and demand better from their technologies.
In short, automated systems like AI should include five core protections:
- They should be safe and effective.
- They should protect against algorithmic discrimination.
- They should respect data privacy.
- They should ensure notice and explanation.
- And they should establish human alternatives to AI.
The Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights provides concrete practices to achieve these goals. It’s a resource for everyone – from technologists building AI systems to policymakers trying to set rules of the road to advocates challenging institutions to do better with how they use automated systems. Alongside the Blueprint, we announced a slate of actions by federal agencies, from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to Education to Health and Human Services to the Veterans Affairs, to advance these principles. And, we are hard at work continuing to implement these protections.
I believe AI is the among the most truly important technologies of our generation – up there with the Internet and cell phones. It is also developing extraordinarily quickly due to improvements in compute and data used for creating the models. The promise is huge, but so are the potential risks – and it’s going to take all of us using all our tools to make sure we get it right.
That’s one of the reasons I’m proud that the CTO team is the home of the congressionally mandated National AI Initiative Office, which is pronounced “NAI-oh.”
The NAIIO helps coordinate key national AI priorities. It is developing a forthcoming update to the 2019 National AI R&D Strategic Plan to support research and development that can better align AI with the public good. We published an implementation plan for a National AI Research Resource that would provide America’s researchers with the tools and data needed to develop cutting-edge AI systems – the kind of stuff that is, today, too often only available to well-resourced tech companies. Increasing who is able to do cutting edge AI research and development will increase American competitiveness in AI while bringing more people to the table in researching this important tool.
This work complements the critical work that the National Institute of Standards and Technology is doing to ensure that AI systems work for the American people. Earlier this year, NIST released the AI Risk Management Framework, which is a vital step toward mitigating the full suite of risks posed by AI systems. And it builds on the guidance that the FTC has put out, and reaffirmed just a few days ago, to help business utilize AI in a manner that follows consumer protection laws and regulations.
That brings me to my second job pitch. The federal government needs more AI experts: technical experts, sociotechnical experts, even lawyers and policy wonks. One benefit of working for the federal government as opposed to say being a journalist is that so far, no chatbot has tried to steal the spouse of a government employee. I’m not saying they will never come for us, but I for one want to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Seriously though, how we as a country establish strong boundaries for AI while pushing hard to realize its many promises is hugely important. Working in our government is a rewarding way to contribute to that work.
Finally, I want to talk a bit about broadband, as I’m sure Alan Davidson will as well, so I’ll keep it short. Much of the benefits of technology are still unavailable to many Americans. As President Biden has said, “high-speed internet is not a luxury any longer, it’s a necessity.” But for the millions of families without an affordable, reliable broadband connection, those benefits have been out of reach for too long.
In some places, broadband is simply unavailable. In others, it’s the price that puts broadband out of reach.
Across the Biden-Harris Administration, we’re making big investments in closing infrastructure gaps and making high-speed internet more affordable. Those efforts include the Affordable Connectivity Program that provides a $30 credit on a household Internet bill – for many families, that brings the cost to $0. You may qualify or know someone who does. If so, send them to getinternet.gov.
Furthermore, NTIA, USDA, and Treasury are all funding infrastructure investments that will fill gaps in our internet infrastructure and make high-speed, reliable connections available in every community. We’re working to make sure those investments are equitably distributed and reach communities – especially Tribal and rural communities. We lead interagency efforts to connect rural and Tribal lands — work that is overcoming barriers to access to funding, improving data accuracy, and promoting digital inclusion.
We’re also helping to shape our Nation’s wireless future through innovative spectrum policy. Practically every part of the vision President Biden has laid out for our country has a spectrum-dependent component somewhere down the line. We want lower costs for American families and increase equity for low-income people who are more likely to rely on their smartphones to get online. We want telemedicine that meets people where they are. We want cutting-edge research to fight climate change and advance forecasting to protect Americans during severe weather. We want national defense systems that are ready when we need them. These priorities – and many, many more – all require spectrum resources.
If you are interested in spectrum or broadband, there are plenty of great jobs in the federal government. And, particularly for those of you in high school and college, think about spectrum engineering – we could really use more great folks.
And on that note, I will wrap up before I start pitching cybersecurity jobs.
Thank you again to Tim Lordan and the State of the Net team for having me. I look forward to working with you all to make technology work for all Americans and to advance technology for democracy at home and abroad.