Seven leading AI companies in the United States have agreed to voluntary safeguards on the technology’s development, the White House announced on Friday, pledging to manage the risks of the new tools even as they compete over the potential of artificial intelligence.
The seven companies — Amazon, Anthropic, Google, Inflection, Meta, Microsoft and OpenAI — will formally announce their commitment to new standards in the areas of safety, security and trust at a meeting with President Biden at the White House on Friday afternoon.
The announcement comes as the companies are racing to outdo each other with versions of AI that offer powerful new ways to create text, photos, music and video without human input. But the technological leaps have prompted fears about the spread of disinformation and dire warnings of a “risk of extinction” as self-aware computers evolve.
The voluntary safeguards are only an early, tentative step as Washington and governments across the world rush to put in place legal and regulatory frameworks for the development of artificial intelligence. They reflect an urgency by the Biden administration and lawmakers to respond to the rapidly evolving technology, even as lawmakers have struggled to regulate social media and other technologies.
The White House offered no details of a forthcoming presidential executive order that would deal with a bigger problem: How to control the ability of China and other competitors to get hold of the new artificial intelligence programs, or the components used to develop them.
That involves new restrictions on advanced semiconductors and restrictions on the export of the large language models. Those are hard to control — much of the software can fit, compressed, on a thumb drive.
An executive order could provoke more opposition from the industry than Friday’s voluntary commitments, which experts said were already reflected in the practices of the companies involved. The promises won’t restrain the plans of the AI companies nor hinder the development of their technologies. And as voluntary commitments, they won’t be enforced by government regulators.
“We are pleased to make these voluntary commitments alongside others in the sector,” Nick Clegg, the president of global affairs at Meta, the parent company of Facebook, said in a statement. “They are an important first step in ensuring responsible guardrails are established for AI and they create a model for other governments to follow.”
As part of the safeguards, the companies agreed to:
Security testing of their AI products, in part by independent experts and to share information about their products with governments and others who are attempting to manage the risks of the technology.
Ensuring that consumers are able to spot AI-generated content by implementing watermarks or other means of identifying generated content.
Publicly reporting the capabilities and limitations of their systems on a regular basis, including security risks and evidence of bias.
Deploying advanced artificial intelligence tools to tackle society’s biggest challenges, like curing cancer and combating climate change.
Conducting research on the risks of bias, discrimination and invasion of privacy from the spread of AI tools.
In a statement announcing the agreements, the Biden administration said the companies must ensure that “innovation doesn’t come at the expense of Americans’ rights and safety.”
“Companies that are developing these emerging technologies have a responsibility to ensure their products are safe,” the administration said in a statement.
Brad Smith, the president of Microsoft and one of the executives attending the White House meeting, said his company endorses the voluntary safeguards.
“By moving quickly, the White House’s commitments create a foundation to help ensure the promise of AI stays ahead of its risks,” Mr. Smith said.
Anna Makanju, vice president of global affairs at OpenAI, described the announcement as “part of our ongoing collaboration with governments, civil society organizations and others around the world to advance AI governance.”
For the companies, the standards described Friday serve two purposes: as an effort to forestall, or shape, legislative and regulatory moves with self-policing, and a signal that they are dealing with this new technology thoughtfully and proactively.
But the rules that they agreed upon are largely the lowest common denominator, and can be interpreted differently by every company. For example, the firms are committed to strict cybersecurity around the data and code used to make the “language models” on which generative AI programs are developed. But there is no specificity about what that means—and the companies would have an interest in protecting their intellectual property anyway.
And even the most careful companies are vulnerable. Microsoft, one of the firms attending the White House event with Mr. Biden scrambled last week to counter a Chinese government-organized hack on the private emails of American officials who were dealing with China. It now appears that China stole, or somehow obtained, a “private key” held by Microsoft that is the key to authenticating emails — one of the company’s most closely-guarded pieces of code.
As a result, the agreement is unlikely to slow the efforts to pass legislation and impose regulation on the emerging technology.
Paul Barrett, the deputy director of the Stern Center for Business and Human Rights at New York University, said that more needed to be done to protect against the dangers that artificial intelligence posed to society.
“The voluntary commitments announced today are not enforceable, which is why it’s vital that Congress, together with the White House, promptly crafts legislation requiring transparency, privacy protections, and stepped up research on the wide range of risks posed by generative AI,” Mr. Barrett said in a statement.
European regulators are poised to adopt AI laws later this year, which has prompted many of the companies to encourage US regulations. Several lawmakers have introduced bills that include licensing for AI companies to release their technologies, the creation of a federal agency to oversee the industry, and data privacy requirements. But members of Congress are far from agreement on rules and are racing to educate themselves on the technology.
Lawmakers have been grappling with how to address the ascent of AI technology, with some focused on risks to consumers while others are acutely concerned about falling behind adversaries, particularly China, in the race for dominance in the field.
This week, the House’s select committee on strategic competition with China sent bipartisan letters to US-based venture capital firms, demanding a reckoning over investments they had made in Chinese AI and semiconductor companies. Those letters come on top of months in which a variety of House and Senate panels have been questioning the AI industry’s most influential entrepreneurs and critics to determine what sort of legislative guardrails and incentives Congress ought to be exploring.
Many of those witnesses, including Sam Altman of the San Francisco start-up OpenAI, have implored lawmakers to regulate the AI industry, pointing out the potential for the new technology to cause undue harm. But that regulation has been slow to get underway in Congress, where many lawmakers still struggle to grasp what exactly AI technology is.
In an attempt to improve lawmakers’ understanding, Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, began a series of listening sessions for lawmakers this summer, to hear from government officials and experts about the merits and dangers of artificial intelligence across a number of fields.
Mr. Schumer has also prepared an amendment to the Senate’s version of this year’s defense authorization bill to incentivize Pentagon employees to report potential issues with AI tools through a “bug bounty” program, commission a Pentagon report on how to improve AI data sharing, and improve reporting on AI in the financial services industry.
Karoun Demirjian Contributed reporting from Washington.