NC tech experts, members of Congress meet in Durham to discuss AI

How Congress should address artificial intelligence technology was the topic of a meeting at N.C. Central University between Triangle tech leaders and U.S. Reps. Deborah Ross and Valerie Foushee.
Posted 2024-02-20T23:48:07+00:00 - Updated 2024-02-21T00:13:57+00:00
U.S. Rep. Deborah Ross, U.S. Rep. Valerie Foushee, and Biden administration science advisor Arati Prabhakar speak at an AI roundtable at NC Central University on Feb. 20, 2024.

Two of North Carolina’s members of Congress met in Durham Tuesday with over a dozen leaders and researchers in artificial intelligence, where they discussed high-level policy and technical minutiae — and left with a promise that their efforts to understand and draft legislation aimed at the industry are worthwhile.

U.S. Reps. Deborah Ross (D-Wake) and Valerie Foushee (D-Orange), who serve on a bipartisan committee aimed at addressing AI issues, hosted the meeting at N.C. Central University, along with Durham Mayor Leonardo Williams and NCCU Chancellor Johnson Akinyele.

Attendees included top executives and lawyers for some of the biggest tech companies in the Triangle — Cisco, IBM and SAS — as well as local entrepreneurs in the AI scene, federal government experts, university researchers and others.

Talking with experts in the business, regulatory and academic worlds like those assembled Tuesday is a key first step in deciding what should or shouldn’t be proposed in that legislation.

One topic of discussion was how to hold tech companies, as well as individuals, responsible for how they use AI. Ross compared it to nuclear power, in having great positive uses as well as destructive applications.

She suggested there should be more emphasis on training new computer scientists on “using those skills for good, not the dark side.”

“I just watched ‘Oppenheimer,’” she said. “And all I was thinking about was AI, the whole time.”

Cynthia Rudin, a computer science professor at Duke University, said the federal government needs to be more explicit with regulations aimed at ethics in AI. For big companies, she said, acting ethically often goes against their bottom line.

“These companies, they just fired their ‘ethical AI’ groups,” Rudin said. “It’s just specifically not in their financial interest to be ethical, so they’re not going to. So you need to regulate it.”

She mentioned concerns with facial recognition — something she won some agreement on from a top IBM executive. Tim Humphrey, who leads IBM’s North Carolina operations and also serves as the company’s chief data office vice president was blunt in his assessment of the development of facial recognition technology, which research has shown often misidentifies Black people.

“When I think about some of the missteps — we all know about facial recognition,” he said. “As a Black person I say — I guarantee — there wasn't anybody Black in that room that was doing any testing. And probably because we're not developing the pipeline of underrepresented minorities into these jobs. … We've got to do a better job of making it attractive at an early age.”

Helping moderate Monday’s meeting was Arati Prabhakar, the top advisor to Democratic President Joe Biden on science and technology policy. And there were indications movement might not only be happening at the federal level.

Durham state Rep. Zack Hawkins also spoke at the meeting, saying he plans to introduce a bill at the state legislature to form a local version of the bipartisan AI committee that Ross and Foushee serve on in Congress.

Ross said in an interview after the meeting that much of the work that needs to be done needs to happen at the federal level since AI issues aren’t confined to state lines.

But there is some key work that other states have already begun, she said, and she hopes North Carolina follows suit.

“States have been doing work on protecting against deep fakes, dealing with election security, dealing with things like Taylor Swift's image, pornography,” Ross said.” And in those areas, states really do have a role to play.”