"Foxes guarding the henhouse": DHS asks AI companies to define "safe" AI

Several familiar names from the current enterprise AI push made the Department of Homeland Security's "safe" AI advisory board, but there were also some notable omissions from a group that will put a lot of trust in AI companies.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas testifies before Congress.
U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. (Credit: DHS)

It's always a little fascinating and disturbing to acknowledge how much enterprise technology is sold by tapping into fear; in most cases, the fear that your business will be eclipsed by others who jumped on an emerging technology unless you buy this particular set of tools or services. The AI boom presents a double dose of worries, expanding on old-fashioned FOMO by adding the notion that left unchecked, AI could ruin the world.

Against that backdrop, the Department of Homeland Security unveiled a new AI advisory board on Friday that "will advise DHS on ensuring the safe and responsible deployment of AI technology in [critical infrastructure] sectors in the years to come, and it will look to address threats posed by this technology to these vital services," DHS said in a press release.

Several familiar names from the current enterprise AI push made the list.

OpenAI CEO Sam Altman and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella will be on the board, as well as Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai and AWS CEO Adam Selipsky. The list also thankfully includes some non-tech industry representatives, such as Damon Hewitt of Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and Maya Wiley of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

The group will meet for the first time over the next couple of weeks, and then hold quarterly meetings to gauge their progress at providing "actionable recommendations" to DHS and critical infrastructure providers. DHS defines "critical infrastructure" as "sixteen sectors of American industry, including our defense, energy, agriculture, transportation, and internet technology sectors," according to the press release.

“AI can be an extraordinarily powerful force to improve the efficiency and quality of all the services that critical infrastructure provides. At the same time, we recognize the tremendously debilitating impact its errant use can have,” DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said during a press conference Friday, according to Bloomberg.

This dichotomy has been a hot topic in cybersecurity circles over the past year, given that generative AI technology unlocks new capabilities for both attackers and defenders. In Mayorkas' scenario, an airline could use AI to detect maintenance problems and reduce downtime, but putting AI in charge of routing decisions could be a very bad idea.

The board will be charged with developing "practical guidelines and best practices for safe, secure and responsible AI: Not a board focused on theory," Mayorkas said Friday, according to Axios.

But there are some curious omissions from a group that will influence government policy on AI.

Mayorkas said that social media companies like Meta were specifically excluded from the group, which means one of the most prominent open-model providers will not have the opportunity to argue the benefits of that approach.

It doesn't include academics who have been critical of how the big tech platform companies represented on the board are advancing AI, such as former Googlers Timnit Gebru and Margaret Mitchell, who now works for Hugging Face. And it also lacks the perspective of an organization like the Allen Institute, which believes AI can have a positive impact on society but that it needs a lot more research in the open to fully understand its power.

DHS noted in its press release that it is scrambling to hire AI experts that work directly for the agency, who can hopefully serve as a counterweight to anything recommended by the board. It's hard to imagine the companies that have invested billions chasing AI business are going to recommend substantial restrictions on its use, especially given the spending power of companies in the critical infrastructure sectors.

As Gebru put it after seeing the makeup of the list, "Foxes guarding the hen house is an understatement."

(This post originally appeared in the Runtime newsletter on April 27th, sign up here to get more enterprise tech news three times a week.)

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