Tuesday, February 27, 2024

‘Mecca’ of A.I.? UNCW professor talks through Biden’s executive order on artificial intelligence

UNCW and the surrounding community has the potential to become the “mecca of AI” in the wake of President Joe Biden’s Oct. 30, 2023, executive order on the technology. (Port City Daily/Preston Lennon)

WILMINGTON — Sweeping guidance and goals for America’s approach to artificial intelligence deployment was released last week and UNCW and its surrounding community is in a good position to benefit. 

READ MORE: Harmful or helpful AI? 4 professors on how UNCW is leveraging its use

Utilizing the Korean War-era Defense Production Act, President Joe Biden issued an executive order on the rapidly-advancing technology on Oct. 30. It is the U.S.’s first attempt of its kind to set boundaries for AI development.  

Though AI has been around for decades through algorithms, the technology has experienced a recent boom due to what’s called generative AI. This describes machines, such as ChatGPT, that can produce text, imagery, audio and synthetic data. 

Many leaders have called for more oversight of the largely unregulated technology as its capabilities expand to become more human-like and available to more people, though the technology’s developers have been resistant to any stifling of their work.

The order sets out to curb projects that could aid countries or terrorists in making weapons of mass destruction or that threaten critical infrastructure. 

Companies developing the most advanced and consequential AI tools are required to notify the federal government and report results from risk and safety tests. This would apply to groups working on projects regarding national security, economic security, and national public health and safety. 

The order also seeks to address the increased potential for AI to create fake news and misinformation, affecting elections or consumer purchasing. 

Several federal agencies have also been recruited to further research AI’s use in the criminal justice system, housing, federal benefits programs and health care to ensure it does not perpetuate discrimination. 

The order indicates the president’s priority on addressing the potential side-effects of an evolving technology, an avoidance of the trap the government finds itself in trying to reactively regulate the Internet and social media. The order is a directive for the nation to lead the world on AI regulation, as it does in its creation.

Though, regulation is not the only objective of the order. 

Biden is also calling for the rapid hiring of AI professionals as part of a government-wide AI talent surge. The order states the government should expand the ability of highly skilled immigrants and nonimmigrants with expertise in critical areas to study, stay, and work in the United States. This could look like modernizing and streamlining visa criteria, interviews, and reviews.

UNCW, a pioneer in the state for its computer science and engineering programs, could help bolster that goal. 

Its computer science program, one of the largest in North Carolina, has a study track dedicated to AI research along with an applied research lab. 

The university has also developed the second Intelligent Systems Engineering program in the country. It centers around the use of AI, blending mechanical engineering with the study of AI algorithms, with implications for anything from robotics to data processing.

“This program should be one of the hottest programs going because [students] start to work with hardware, software and then AI very early in their career,” UNCW professor Karl Ricanek said to PCD on Tuesday. “This program is going to be extremely beneficial to the vision of President Biden and to help with turning out AI professionals.”

Ricanek is a prominent professor in the computer science department and has researched AI at UNCW since 2003. He noted the college has a prime opportunity to benefit from the executive order’s promotion of an AI workforce. 

The order also aims to catalyze AI research across the country by creating a national pilot to provide access to key AI resources and data. Along with that comes a directive to expand grants for AI research in vital areas like health care and climate change.

Ricanek said this is where disciplines across the university can benefit from utilizing AI. Over the last few months, the professor has been leading the charge for UNCW to adopt campus-wide AI guidelines and for each department to embrace the technology in a way that works for it.

UNCW and Cape Fear Community College have a role in guiding residents, businesses and officials in the surrounding community into figuring out their place in an AI economy, he added. 

“We can make New Hanover County and southeastern North Carolina a mecca for AI,” Ricanek said. “We have the resources, we have the education, we have the institution. We have everything that we need to have to make this a beacon, a shining star for what AI could look like in North Carolina and much broader domestically and internationally.” 

As for the regulatory components of the order, Ricanek commended Biden’s effort, a culmination of a year’s work involving multiple agencies, yet he had concerns about the execution. 

For example, the order calls for the development of screening standards to prevent the creation of biological weapons. It states life-science projects would need to agree to abide by those standards as a condition of federal funding. 

“How do we really put teeth into those measures?” Ricanek said. “It’s going to take the U.S. working with worldwide organizations to really put some sort of monitoring in place.”

The question is, who will hold groups accountable for the order’s requirements? Those include mandating cloud service providers to report foreign customers to the feds and demanding guidance for content authentication and watermarking to clearly label AI-generated content. 

More questions remain on how groups will know when they’ve crossed a line and what consequences will result from violating the rules. 

The executive order is limited in scope; most of it only applies to federal agencies and projects that receive federal funding or grants. 

To regulate the private sector, Congress would need to act. The order calls for some actions from the legislative branch, mainly ensuring user privacy, though more than a dozen bills have stalled on that subject. 

Without enforced guardrails on private companies, which Ricanek noted would receive substantial pushback, Biden’s vision may not reach full clarity. 

And even if a federally funded project follows the directives, another user could adapt that product for different use out from under the government’s thumb. 

Proponents for AI regulation have criticized the order’s lack of restrictions on what’s called “open source” models, which allow the free distribution and modification of the tool. This includes large language models and chatbots — ChatGPT is a culmination of both.

Large AI developers Microsoft, Google, OpenAI and the start-up Anthropic have voluntarily agreed to some security requirements regarding their tools. 

However, there is no impetus for those using their open-source software and modifying it for other, maybe nefarious, uses. For example, scammers are using AI software to make “clone calls” to family members, replicating their voices, to swindle money from people, often seniors.

Ricanek pointed out many companies will classify their research and models as trade secrets, and thus leaders may have to fundamentally change what they view as confidential in order to regulate it. Still, Ricanek said more private sector oversight would trigger litigation and expected Supreme Court action would be needed to resolve the matter. 

Many AI researchers have also been resistant to regulation over fears bureaucracy would stifle innovation and require frequent changes to keep up with the technology. 

PCD asked the professor if the order could hinder some of the work UNCW does. Ricanek said it could, and the university would need direction from the UNC system to approach balancing any restrictions with creative freedom. 

Overall, it is still unclear how the order’s guidelines directly impact UNCW’s AI activity, according to Ricanek, who is also the director of UNCW’s Institute for Interdisciplinary Identity Sciences. The center conducts complex research projects, including on AI and cybersecurity, and leverages resources from higher education, the federal government, and strategic partners to support national interests. 

“We don’t have any mechanisms by which we can track [the executive order’s] number of parameters,” Ricanek said. “We don’t do that at all.”

He said the university should start discussing if it should have some mechanism to register models internally and set parameters to check the technology’s safety. 

Also on the list is finding the resources to implement regulations set forth by the executive order if and when more specific rules are handed down. The order’s far-reaching goals could take millions of dollars to implement and years to work through; UNCW is faced with similar challenges. 

Ricanek said he was working on setting up town hall meetings for UNCW and the broader community to start brainstorming approaches to the emergence of more advanced AI.

“You have a moment in time like no other,” he said. “How are we going to step up? Stand out?”

Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at brenna@localdailymedia.com.

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