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Remarks of Assistant Secretary Alan Davidson on Meeting the AI Moment

CES 2024 
Remarks of Alan Davidson 
Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information 
National Telecommunications and Information Administration  
Las Vegas, NV 
January 11, 2024 
As prepared for delivery

It is terrific to be back at CES. Not to date myself too much, but my first CES was something like 20 years ago. I do love walking the floor. And it is gratifying for NTIA to see how so much of our work – spectrum, broadband, AI policy – is reflected as an enabler of the innovations here.

We are here today because of the growing power of technology in our daily lives. That power – along with its inherent risks – has been the animating force in my career since I was a student in college.

As an undergraduate at MIT, I had the chance to work with the great physicist Philip Morrison. 

An eminent nuclear scientist – although not the one in the movie — Professor Morrison spent the early part of his career developing atomic weapons. He served as part of the Manhattan Project and helped to build and deploy the first atomic bombs. He then spent much of the later part of his career trying to stop the proliferation and use of the very same weapons that he had helped create. 

That lesson was not lost on me. Humanity has the power to create technologies that can improve our lives, connect the globe, and end wars. It also has the power to build tools to monitor our population, to divide our societies, to weaken the vulnerable, or even to destroy life itself.  

The choices to build technologies for good or for evil, in service of freedom or control, to unite or to divide -- those choices are ours. 

AT NTIA we are directly confronting those choices in our work today.  

We are in the midst of a historic mission to connect everyone in America to affordable, reliable high-speed Internet service. 

We are spurring wireless leadership and innovation with smart spectrum policy, including a new National Spectrum Strategy. 

And we are pushing to build a better Internet for everyone, including through our work co-chairing the new Task Force on Kids’ Online Health and Safety. 

We are doing all this with a focus on making sure new technologies are developed and deployed in the service of people and of progress

There is no better example today of the impact of technology on humanity than the global conversation around artificial intelligence and machine learning. 

Responsible AI innovation can – and will – bring enormous benefits to people. It is going to transform every corner of our economy, from advances in medicine to precision agriculture. 

But we will only realize the promise of AI if we also address the serious risks it raises today. Those include concerns about safety, security, privacy, discrimination and bias. Risks from disinformation. Impact on the labor market. 

For these reasons and more, there is a strong sense of urgency across the Biden Administration – and among governments around the world – to engage on these issues. 

At the federal level, President Biden’s AI Executive Order is the most significant government action to date on AI. It brings the full capabilities of the U.S. government to bear in promoting innovation and trust in AI.  

And in 2024, the Commerce Department is playing a leading role in the Administration’s AI work. The Department is focusing on safety, security, privacy, innovation, equity, and intellectual property related concerns. Our colleagues at NIST are standing up a new AI Safety Institute. The Patent & Trademark Office is exploring copyright issues.  

And at NTIA, we are doing our part as well. Last year, we launched an initiative on AI accountability and we will soon be releasing the results of that work. We are deeply involved in the Department's AI policy work and international efforts, including the G7’s Code of Conduct. 

The Executive Order gave us a homework assignment - which I think is one of the most important projects that we'll be taking on this year - around AI openness. This work will look at the benefits and risks posed by widely available model weights. This includes model weights that have been “open sourced,” or otherwise broadly distributed. 

AI openness raises important concerns around safety as well as opportunities for competition and innovation. 

On the one hand, early conversations about “open source” AI have engendered fears about making the most advanced frontier models widely available without adequate restrictions or any safeguards against misuse. 

On the other hand, we've heard from people concerned about the impact on competition and innovation if only a small set of players control access to the most important models. History has shown that closed systems can undermine experimentation and innovation. And we know that technology’s benefits can be distributed more widely when access to that technology is democratized.  

We had the opportunity to dig into some of the views on AI openness during a kick off event last month in Washington. 

One major takeaway: The good news is open source AI is not a binary issue. There are gradients of openness.  

Our forthcoming Request for Comment on this topic will look at the risks and benefits of open systems, and what safeguards for those systems can look like. We will produce a report on this work by July of this year. 

And I look forward to more conversations about this issue as we seek polices that both promote safety and allow for broad access to AI tools. 

In conclusion, safe and trustworthy AI innovation is an ambitious effort. Given the role AI systems play in our lives, this is about far more than just technology policy.  

This is about creating economic opportunity and new jobs. Improving equity at home. Promoting human rights and fundamental freedoms around the world. Tackling the big challenges facing our planet. 

The road ahead is daunting. But I am encouraged by one thing: Conversations like this. Conversations, happening around the world, confronting head-on the societal challenges raised by a new technology like AI.  

We are far more engaged than we ever have been before on a new technology. Governments are stepping up. Businesses and civil society groups are stepping up to address this big opportunity. 

This is our moment. The potential for technology to promote human progress has never been greater. But the risks, in many ways, have never been higher. 

The choice is ours. The decisions we make now can lead us to a world where technology works in service of a more open, free, equitable and just society.  

Together, I know we can build that better version of our future.

Thank you.