CNCounty News

Creating guardrails will be ‘essential’ to the success of AI

Arati Prabhakar, director, White House Office of Science and Technology, speaks to county officials at AI Summit. Photo by Leon Lawrence III

Key Takeaways

Artificial intelligence is “captivating, disruptive and transformative.” It’s a tool counties can, and should, use for progress, but intergovernmental collaboration in creating guardrails against its risks is essential.

That was the word from panelists at The Transformative Power of Artificial Intelligence at a NACo Legislative Conference summit on the topic.

“Artificial intelligence has applications that are extraordinarily broad, and I think this is the source of this phenomenon of power in the times that we’re living in today,” said Arati Prabhakar, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. “Every application of artificial intelligence has a bright side and a dark side.” 

As part of an executive order President Biden signed in October on the safe development and use of artificial intelligence, the Office of Management and Budget is putting together guidance on government use of AI, which is in the process of getting finalized, according to Prabhakar. 

“I think this is particularly a place where we want to be able to work with everyone at all levels of government, where I think we’ve got a lot to learn from each other,” Prabhakar said. 

“This is a great opportunity to harmonize how we’re all putting in place the procedures for how government uses AI.”

Counties shouldn’t attempt to become experts in the technical specifications of artificial intelligence. 

Instead, they should focus on the ways in which it impacts residents, particularly those who are most vulnerable to AI scams, including non-native English speakers and the elderly, said Rohit Chopra, director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

“We mostly need to approach this with a sense of how it’s going to impact people,” Chopra said. 

“How it’s going to impact other workforces, jobs and how we ensure that we don’t get tricked into adopting technology that creates problems downstream.”

Federal preemption is an issue that counties should be “wary” of that could impact protections against generative AI, Chopra said. 

“I know that many of the big tech companies always want broad deletion of state and local laws,” Chopra said. “And I think we need to be in a cautious moment where perhaps we want to see state and local governments in some ways look to address their concerns about the harms that could emerge, because it will be very, very difficult to put the genie back in the bottle.”

AI developers and employers, like Microsoft, have an obligation to create ethical and secure principles on how they deploy AI, said Gerry Petrella, Microsoft’s general manager of U.S. Public Policy. He added that when it comes to legislation, it’s important for federal agencies to clarify whether existing laws apply to AI: “For someone to be discriminated against on the basis of their race to get something like a mortgage, it’s illegal for a human to do that today, and it should also be illegal for an AI system to do that.” 

Travis County, Texas Judge Andy Brown highlighted work NACo is doing through its tech exchange and AI exploratory committee to assess guardrails and gather resources related to artificial intelligence. He also pointed to the Government AI Coalition, a consortium the city of San Jose assembled of more than 140 government agencies across the federal, state and local landscape to address how to use AI for social good, foster cross-agency collaboration and ensure ethical accountability.

“Working amongst each other, regardless of what size county you are, working with folks such as yourselves and various agencies, I think we will all be able to have some decent roadmaps and guidelines that can help us that we can then tweak then for our specific needs,” Brown said. 

“The AI piece is probably the easiest, but the generative AI editing can be very complicated.”

Counties can use AI to train their workforce, compile resources for residents and streamline the permitting process, the panelists said. 

The software company Salesforce is using AI to offer its workforce training and a wide range of resources through the online learning platform Trailhead, according to Nadia Hansen, Salesforce global digital transformation executive.   

“Everybody in our organization can use Trailhead to teach ourselves, not just hard skills, but also soft skills,” Hansen said. “So, you can learn about artificial intelligence, you can learn how to become a better presenter, or you can learn how to build your own masked language model.”

Hansen, a former chief information officer for Clark County, said that she knows counties tend to be “risk averse,” which might lead some to shy away from implementing AI, however there are many small ways it can be implemented that benefit the whole community she explained, including adding AI chatbots that can compile county data for frequently asked questions. Petrella echoed her sentiment, and said whether in government or the private sector, workers can benefit from AI.

“If you can spend more time on tasks that require your time, rather than some of the more mundane ones, that’s probably a net benefit to you or to your workforce,” Petrella said. “As we continue to build out AI systems and everyday services, we need to train folks.”

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