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Almost Timely News: Hot Takes on AI Congressional Hearing (2023-05-21)

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What’s On My Mind: Hot Takes on AI Congressional Hearing

I took a few hours to read the Congressional testimony of Sam Altman, Gary Marcus, and Christina Montgomery in depth, which you can find here. It’s always challenging reading Congressional testimony, mainly because senators spend so much time posturing in their questions that half the transcript is usually a waste. Maybe I need to write a prompt that distills down senatorial questions to just their raw question and preserves the answers of witnesses in full to make the transcripts more bearable.

Anyway, I have some in-depth thoughts about the way some AI leaders and elected officials are thinking about AI and… I’m not super encouraged. First, a few folks have asked why AI business leaders are calling for regulation. It’s not entirely altruistic; some of the suggestions like a regulatory body would inherently benefit those companies with deep pockets to be able to comply with regulations, squeezing out smaller competitors. As with all things governmental and political, any time someone’s lobbying for something, you should spend some time thinking about what’s in it for them.

On the topic of regulating models, that ship has largely sailed. With so many excellent and ever-evolving open source models, the door to regulating the models themselves has closed.

It’s really important to distinguish models from fine-tunes, which is a key point that was entirely omitted in the Congressional testimony. Regulating models themselves won’t change the impact that fine tuning has in terms of potential harm AI can do.

Let me explain in terms of pizza. Building a model is like baking a pizza from scratch – and I mean, all the way from scratch. You have to grow a field of wheat, harvest it, dry it, mill it, and turn it into flour. You have to grow tomatoes. You have to mine salt. You have to dig a well for water. You have to grow a field of sugar cane or raise bees or something for the sweetener if you use that. You have to grow grazing land to raise cows to get the milk you need for cheese. Baking a pizza from literal scratch would be an enormous, expensive enterprise.

A fine-tune is like taking the pizza that already exists, like one of those store-bought pizza kits, and adjusting the proportions of the ingredients. Maybe you add a bunch of chili flakes to it – that will dramatically change the pizza and how it tastes, but it doesn’t change the underlying model very much. You can do a lot of harm to someone by giving them a super spicy pizza, even if the base pizza was harmless, or giving them a pizza with toppings that they’re allergic to. The base pizza isn’t to blame, but it was part of the delivery mechanism of the harmful impact.

Here’s why this is important. Building a model is incredibly resource intensive. You need massive amounts of compute power, time, properly-labeled data, and human resources to produce the base model. This limits the production of these large language models to big tech companies. On the other hand, fine-tuning a model can be done by you or me with nothing more than a gaming laptop. Going back to our pizza analogy, it’s the difference between the entire supply chain needed to make the pizza, and you or me just sprinkling a handful of store-bought chili flakes on it.

The potential for harm can come from the model, or it can come from the fine tuning of the model. Regulating models will in no way solve the fine tuning issue, and there isn’t a legitimately sensible way to do so that doesn’t basically require government surveillance of literally everyone.

Why? Because some of the best models now are open-source models, models that literally anyone – you, me, the dog – can download. You can download them for free and use them today, and they’re very good as is, but you can also fine tune them on your own to do exactly what you want them to do. In terms of regulating models, the horse has left the barn.

So that key takeaway – that the powers that be are discussing regulating something that’s already happened and can’t be taken back – is critical to understanding where the government – in this case, the USA government – is in their understanding of AI. The USA is behind, far behind the EU, and far behind the tech community, and they need to catch up quickly or else they’ll be legislating for problems that no longer exist.

The second major area where there was a lot of discussion was around liability. We’ve established now that AI created content is, in the USA, ineligible for copyright because it was not made by humans, and copyright law applies only to human-made creations. The big question now is, who is liable for an AI model’s output? We have a couple of precedents here that we could look to, and none of them are an exact fit.

Full disclosure, I am not and have never been a lawyer, and I cannot give legal advice. If you need a lawyer who specializes in AI, go look up my friend Ruth Carter. They do AI law.

The first precedent is the copyright one. Because machines are ineligible for copyright, this implies that their output has no rights, and in a sense then no responsibility for what they create either. This makes a good deal of sense. If a machine spits out, say, racist content, by itself it hasn’t done anything wrong. Someone else today has to take that content and publish it, distribute it, do something with it, and it’s that action which could be in violation of the law.

The second precedent, and one which came up a lot in the hearings, was Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. This law essentially indemnifies carriers for the content that goes over their networks. For example, T-Mobile, my mobile company, has no legal responsibility for what I do with my devices on their network. If I distribute illegal content, they cannot be sued for my actions. This act is what has caused social media to be such a dumpster fire; companies like Twitter and Facebook have no legal liability for what people post on those networks. In the USA, the Supreme Court just upheld this, so there’s little chance of that changing any time soon.

So when a machine does something wrong, who owns the mistake? The current thinking – unsurprisingly by big tech companies – is that they are not at fault for what their models create. I can see this point; an automaker is not liable for an accident that I cause unless it can be proven that there’s some defect in the car or the car maker failed to warn vehicle owners that doing something dumb would cause a crash. However, the loophole there is that automakers have safety standards they have to adhere to. AI does not, and thus, the comparison of AI models to automakers isn’t really compelling. If we had standards for which models had to comply, then you could indemnify AI model creators if someone used that model in a way that was not intended.

The law around AI in general is still largely unsettled and will definitely change over time; right now, no one really has solid answers to much of anything. The key takeaway for us as end users of AI is to treat it like a chainsaw. Ask yourself the golden question of AI: what could go wrong? What are the risks if an AI deployment goes off the rails? Just as it’s a bad idea to use a chainsaw to, say, do surgery, there are plenty of use cases where you shouldn’t use AI, like hiring and firing.

Speaking of which, employment was another major area where the folks asking the questions didn’t really know what the questions were that they were asking, and even the AI experts didn’t have solid answers. No one does, though economists estimate between 30-50% of jobs will be impacted, perhaps even lost to AI over time, as well as creation of lots of new jobs, most of which we can’t even imagine right now. I’m a lot more optimistic about this right now than I was a few weeks ago.

Here’s why: the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney in 1793 made cotton go from a pain in the ass crop to a hugely profitable one. The net effect of the cotton gin was a dramatic increase in the farming and picking of cotton, powered mostly through slavery in the Southern USA. That’s right – a technological change created a massive boom in the slave trade (which to be clear is awful).

But the key point is that an asymmetry in labor in part of the supply chain had dramatic effects on the rest of it (as well as terrible human costs). It’s probable that we’ll see AI impacts having asymmetric labor effects as well. Think about it for a second; if we mandate, even internally, that human editors need to fact check what AI is creating, then yes, we lose a lot of writers. But as AI scales up, we suddenly need a lot more editors. These are ordered effects; the first order effect is to reduce the number of writers. The second order effects in this example is to increase the number of editors because instead of having 10 articles a day to edit, editors suddenly have 10,000.

This is a critical point to think about in your own information supply chain: if you use AI to scale certain parts, where are the next logical bottlenecks that you’ll need more resources to successfully harness the outputs of AI?

The final area of discussion, and one that was largely fruitless, was about AI safely and morals. This is an area fraught with problems because no one can agree on what is moral. Think about it for a second. Even in a relatively homogenous culture, there are still major disagreements about what is right and wrong. Whose morals are correct? Christians? Muslims? Buddhists? Atheists? Satanists? Who decides what is right and wrong? We live in a world now where there’s such hyper-partisanship and polarization of opinion on literally everything that we can’t agree on anything. We fight over cartoon depictions of candy, for goodness’ sake.

What we do know about AI models is that they’re trained on our data. Copyrighted or not, if it’s publicly visible, at least one of the major AI models has been trained on it. That means that all our foibles and flaws are in these models as well. Everything good about us, everything bad about us, everything that encompasses humanity is in these models to some degree – and that means vastly conflicting morals. It’s impossible and will remain impossible for us to create these same universal AI models that have any kind of morality – especially as we continue to churn out more and more disinformation.

For example, Russian propagandists are doing their level best to pollute the Internet with as much anti-Ukrainian content as possible. Hundreds of attempts by Russian saboteurs have been made to create code in Twitter’s now open-source recommendation algorithms to classify anything Ukrainian as government-sponsored propaganda and reduce its visibility. Some of that garbage – and it is garbage, let’s be clear – will inevitably find its way into large language models, the same way that other hate speech does.

What’s the solution here? This is one area where the witnesses and the elected officials were in general agreement, and I’m in agreement with them: radical transparency. If an organization is publishing an AI model, it must disclose fully and publicly what that model was trained on in a very granular fashion. Not “trained on thousands of books”, but the specific books and editions. Not “social media discussions”, but which specific posts.

We don’t accept nutrition labels any more, especially in places like the EU, where you just don’t bother disclosing information. You’re required to disclose specifics. The same should be true of AI models as well as fine-tuned models. Someone who’s doing fine-tuning should equally be required, if the model is going to be made available for commercial or public use, to disclose everything in the fine tuning dataset so that we can all see exactly what the model is learning.

This is how we’ll solve some of the liability issues around AI as well. Right now, we don’t know how models were trained, so we can’t realistically say whether a model should be liable for its output. But if we require full disclosure of the data a model was trained on, we can absolutely hold accountable a tech company for training on content that’s harmful, false, etc. We could mandate, for example, the exclusion of patently false and wrong information (like content claiming the Earth is flat when it is verifiably not flat) – and companies which do not exclude that information in their training datasets would be more liable for the things their models do wrong.

This is where some of the cottage industries are going to spring up around AI, opportunities for businesses and savvy entrepreneurs to make a lot of money:

  • There’s money to be made, especially for folks who have backgrounds in DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion), to help audit models – especially the training data that goes into models.
  • There’s money to be made in the auditing processes themselves.
  • There’s money to be made in monitoring models and doing independent third party validation of model outputs.
  • There’s HUGE money to be made in curating training datasets that meet specific standards – voluntary standards at first, until the industry or the government gets it together.
  • There’s money to be made in the national security and policy implications of widespread use of large language models, particularly around propaganda and disinformation.

AI is an incredibly powerful tool that has no manual and no guidelines right now. If we want to continue making use of its power, we need to better understand its capabilities and regulate the inputs and outputs – what goes into making AI and how people use it – for us to succeed with it in the long term. As we have seen with hostile foreign powers like Russia, there are already attempts to use it to subvert nations and cause tremendous damage with it, so the sooner we figure things out, the better.

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