Building an AI Future That Is Safe for All of Us

No matter where you turn, artificial intelligence (AI) seems to be everywhere, including in President Biden’s March State of the Union — the first time a president has ever uttered the term during the address. More and more, AI is shaping important decisions about jobs, economic well-being, access to critical resources and services, and other key areas. That’s why building an AI future that is safe for all of us is a key priority of a new initiative of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and The Leadership Conference Education Fund — the Center for Civil Rights and Technology.

As the president noted, AI is also a top priority for his administration. In October 2023, the White House released an executive order on the use of AI by the federal government — a powerful next step to get federal agencies better prepared to use its decision-making power in a way that increases protections, rather than letting AI run unchecked. Immediately following the executive order, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) released, with a request for comment from stakeholders, a draft memo on AI use by federal agencies. On March 27, OMB released its final guidance memo on agency implementation of the administration’s AI executive order.

Congress has also been paying attention to AI. In September 2023, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer organized a series of AI Insight Forums, which brought together civil society leaders, academics, and tech company executives to discuss and debate key issues related to the emerging threats and opportunities stemming from artificial intelligence. In February 2024, the House of Representatives launched a bipartisan task force on artificial intelligence.

For its part, the new Center is urging policymakers to implement AI policies that reflect our democratic values and address the real harms people are experiencing right now. In December 5 comments to OMB on the proposed AI guidance, The Leadership Conference and the Center for Civil Rights and Technology — joined by dozens of other organizations — noted that for the use of AI to be successful, agencies must ensure that the benefits and risks of AI are considered early on and throughout the AI lifecycle through design, development, and deployment. The comments also offered detailed recommendations to meet this goal.

Civil rights and public interest groups were pleased to see that the final guidance memo released in March 2024 reflected their feedback and concerns. As The Leadership Conference stated, recommendations from the civil rights community will “provide an important layer of protection for the deployment of AI and emerging technologies across the federal government.” Among other things, The Leadership Conference and the Center support the guidance’s directive for agencies to identify and assess AI’s impact on equity and fairness and mitigate algorithmic discrimination; incorporate feedback from affected communities; conduct ongoing monitoring and mitigation for AI-enabled discrimination; notify impacted individuals; maintain human consideration and remedy processes; and offer opt-outs for AI-enabled decisions. Several members of The Leadership Conference coalition, as well as allied organizations, also released statements in support of the final OMB guidance, including:

The Center is also working to ensure that Congress hears from the communities most at risk of AI-induced harms to ensure that integration of AI technology is a social good and not a civil rights wrong. The Center worked closely with Leader Schumer in ensuring that key voices from The Leadership Conference coalition were able to represent the civil rights community at the AI forums he organized. 

While these developments are headline grabbing and cause for optimism in many ways, there is more that needs to be done. The Center will continue to press the Biden administration and Congress on the importance of protecting civil rights in AI policy. As guidance is implemented, the Center will monitor how waivers are used, the applicability to grants or other funding provided to states, and other priorities as outlined in the memo.

And despite this positive movement, a worrying number of technologists and lawmakers continue to stress the importance of innovation in AI at the expense of equity and protections from discrimination. The civil rights community, however, believes that innovation and equity are not mutually exclusive — as long as systems are proven to be safe and effective before implementation. In fact, we believe that innovation in AI and technology can serve to be proactively equitable. Agencies and other policymakers should ensure that AI is used to make progress in tackling societal challenges, such as accessibility, health disparities, food insecurity, equity, and justice. These outcomes will only be achieved if people impacted by those systems trust the decisions being made and are not harmed by them.

Frank Nolan, senior civil rights and technology associate at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and its Center for Civil Rights and Technology, contributed to this blog.