The FTC’s AI advisers are fighting a White House plan that could boost cloud giants

Critics of a national AI research project say it pushes a “myopic” large-scale AI approach that will entrench dominance of the very cloud giants the Biden administration has pushed the FTC to rein in.

U.S. National Artificial Intelligence Initiative

An effort to develop a national data and AI resource hub is meeting criticism.

Illustration: U.S. National Artificial Intelligence Initiative, Protocol

A talk at an October meeting hosted by the U.S. National Science Foundation led by Google Cloud’s Andrew Moore was exactly the sort of conversation that critics of a government push to facilitate large-scale AI projects are worried about.

Moore, vice president and general manager for AI and industry solutions, talked about AI testbeds, the environments used to simulate how AI and deep learning systems will operate when let loose to run in real life. During the discussion, academics and government agency chairs riffed on the role of federally-funded testing facilities, why and how they might be maintained, how much computing capacity they’d need to operate and, of course, the cost.

The talk Moore led was part of a meeting of a task force that began convening earlier this year, a preliminary step in an effort to develop a national data and AI resource hub. But despite its buzzworthy promise to “democratize” AI by giving a more diverse array of researchers access to its raw materials, critics of the project — including three members of the Federal Trade Commission’s new AI advisory team — want the initiative in its current form stopped altogether.

They say it will not only exacerbate development of harmful algorithmic technologies but will further entrench dominance of the very cloud tech giants the Biden administration has pushed the FTC to rein in.

The National Science Foundation and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy are leading the task force, which was launched in June to plot out the National AI Research Resource. They say it will give more U.S.-based researchers the chance to build big AI projects by accessing immense data sets such as anonymized government transportation or medical data, along with the cloud infrastructure necessary to use that data to train machine-learning models or other AI systems.

However, some critics of the effort wonder if there’s a disconnect between the NAIRR and the Biden administration’s other efforts to protect people from the harmful effects of AI and the data collection driving it. They point to the FTC’s tough stance on Big Tech, as well as a proposal from the OSTP to establish a “Bill of Rights” for AI which would require AI to respect democratic values and treat people fairly.

“I think they’re trying to have it both ways in terms of supporting business and protecting the average person,” said Ben Winters, a counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, regarding the Biden administration’s approach to AI policy. “There’s not really a recognition that deployment, deployment, deployment at all costs is at odds with protecting people’s privacy and civil liberties with respect to use of these tools." Over time, said Winters, “throughout the effort of OSTP and what they might come out with, it might end up being in conflict with the results of setting up the NAIRR.”

But the OSTP’s would-be AI Bill of Rights is not in conflict with the NAIRR project, said Daniel Ho, associate director of the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence, who has pushed for a national research cloud. “OSTP’s AI Bill of Rights and the NAIRR are both animated by the critical role that AI plays in modern society with a particular focus on the mandate for AI to be more human-centered, developed with human impact, risks and benefits in mind,” he said.

The OSTP did not respond to a request for comment.

Cloud giants raise their hands

All three of the biggest cloud behemoths — Amazon, Google and Microsoft — have indicated they’d like to play a role in the NAIRR project.

Google said the resource should involve a multicloud approach that would rely on more than one cloud provider. Amazon and Microsoft also said the NAIRR initiative should involve partnerships with commercial cloud providers. They argued that working with the private-sector cloud companies would ensure the resource stays up-to-date as data and cloud-related technology continue their rapid pace of evolution. The three companies also mentioned the importance of promoting access to more diverse researchers as well as preserving data privacy and protecting against unfair or biased AI.

All signs seem to point to NAIRR partnerships with the top dogs of the cloud. Yet after just three meetings of the task force, its co-chair, Manish Parashar, director of NSF’s Office of Advanced Cyberinfrastructure, said it is too early to define how the research data hub will be constructed and managed, or in what ways private-sector cloud providers might be involved.

“Our charge from Congress is to consider the full range of data and compute resources, including, for example, high-performance computing, cloud computing, hybrid platforms and future computing paradigms,” he told Protocol in an email.

A specific recommendation made by the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence in a 2020 memo propelled Congress to create the task force. “Federal funding for AI has not kept pace with the growth or potential of the field,” wrote the commission, which called for billions in non-defense funding to strengthen AI development at academic and government-affiliated labs in order to bolster the nation’s future security and “build vital public-private partnerships.”

An NSF spokesperson said the NSCAI is not actively involved in the task force creating the NAIRR. But they share a member – Google’s Moore. In addition to his role on the NAIRR task force, Moore serves as an NSCAI commissioner alongside former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who chairs that group, which was established during the Trump administration in 2018. Another big name in tech and cloud circles, Amazon CEO and former head of its AWS cloud division, Andy Jassy, sits on the commission, too. So do representatives from Microsoft and Oracle.

Like many in corporate AI, the security commission views AI research and development as a proxy cold war between American civil liberties and China’s surveillance-based authoritarianism. “We take seriously China’s ambition to surpass the United States as the world’s AI leader within a decade,” wrote the commission in a report published in March. “The AI competition is also a values competition.”

But threats of the U.S. “losing” a race for AI dominance against China are being used as a pretense for significant government AI investment for national security as well as for commercial contexts, said EPIC’s Winters. He said the concept comes with an “absurd assumption that because this tech is coming from and created in the United States, it has some virtuousness to it.”

AI advisers at the FTC push back

“We believe that the Task Force has, to date, over-emphasized the role of large-scale compute in its considerations. This leads to the myopic view that building bigger and more expansive compute is necessary for positive advances in the AI field,” wrote the American Civil Liberties Union in comments to the task force.

Indeed, not only do some critics of the NAIRR’s current competitive, large-scale AI focus hope it will shift gears away from that narrow view of what AI research is, but some recognize that a huge hub for applying massive data sets for machine-learning computations inherently requires the world’s largest cloud providers. Considering the project’s ties to private-sector cloud executives, some, including Meredith Whittaker, senior adviser on AI at the FTC, worry that it amounts to a Big Tech subsidy sham.

“Why would a conflicted government body populated by tech executives recommend ‘democratizing’ access to the infrastructures at the heart of their concentrated power? Because this proposal wouldn't actually reduce that power,” Whittaker wrote in an article — published after her November appointment to the FTC — in ACM Interactions, an academic journal published by the Association for Computing Machinery. “These companies control the tooling, development environments, languages, and software that define the AI research process — they make the water in which AI research swims,” she continued, adding that “there is no plausible scenario in which a national research infrastructure could be meaningfully constructed outside of the current tech-industry ecosystem.”

Whittaker’s article reiterated what she and two other researchers named to the FTC’s AI advisory group, Amba Kak and Sarah Myers West, wrote in a letter they sent to the task force before they joined the agency. All three have been colleagues of the AI Now Institute, a group that has been critical of Big Tech’s influence on AI and of AI’s negative impacts on minority communities.

In their letter, they encouraged the task force to reconsider its anticipated plan to involve large cloud providers in the NAIRR. The alternative? Rather than building shared research infrastructure with big cloud companies, NAIRR should “instead explore alternative ideas for expanding research into AI, increasing government investment in critical work on AI, and meaningfully democratizing decision making on the development and deployment of AI and related technologies.”

Because the NAIRR will make AI research more accessible for communities that have been historically underrepresented or underserved, NSF’s Parashar said it could facilitate efforts to mitigate the harms of AI. “You can imagine how such accessibility could open opportunities for more work in critical areas such as auditing, testing and evaluation, bias mitigation, security and more. Likewise, expanding access would strengthen our national ability to build AI technologies that are more equitable and meet the needs of all Americans,” he said.

Not all critics of the current NAIRR focus want it stopped. Nandita Sampath, a policy analyst with Consumer Reports focused on algorithmic bias and accountability issues, said NAIRR should serve as a hub for a variety of AI-related research including the sort of interdisciplinary social science research that is not the sole domain of Ph.D.s and engineers. However, she questioned the idea of killing the project all together. “I don’t know that scrapping this idea is what I think should happen,” she said, adding, “This needs to be designed in a way that does not entrench the power of these big tech companies.”

In its own comments submitted to the task force, EPIC argued that private corporate partners “should play an extremely limited role in the NAIRR,” and if they must be involved, “NAIRR should set rigorous restrictions on the influence of companies involved and on the access those companies have to government data sets.”

For now, there are no signs that the task force is considering any major shift away from planning a national research hub that will closely involve the giants of data and the cloud.

The group will hold its fourth public meeting on Dec. 13. Google’s Moore will be there, sharing his recommendation for what the NAIRR’s testbed environment for AI should look like.


How 'Dan from HR' became TikTok’s favorite career coach

You can get a lot of advice about corporate America on TikTok. ‘Dan from HR’ wants to make sure you’re getting the right instruction.

'Dan from HR' has posted hundreds of videos on his TikTok account about everything from cover letters to compensation.

Image: Dan Space

Daniel Space downloaded TikTok for the same reason most of us did. He was bored.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Space wanted to connect with his younger cousin, who uses TikTok, so he thought he’d get on the platform and try it out (although he refused to do any of the dances). Eventually, the algorithm figured out that Space is a longtime HR professional and fed him a post with resume tips — the only issue was that the advice was “really horrible,” he said.

Keep Reading Show less
Sarah Roach

Sarah Roach is a reporter and producer at Protocol (@sarahroach_) where she contributes to Source Code, Protocol's daily newsletter. She is a recent graduate of George Washington University, where she studied journalism and mass communication and criminal justice. She previously worked for two years as editor in chief of her school's independent newspaper, The GW Hatchet.

Sponsored Content

A CCO’s viewpoint on top enterprise priorities in 2022

The 2022 non-predictions guide to what your enterprise is working on starting this week

As Honeywell’s global chief commercial officer, I am privileged to have the vantage point of seeing the demands, challenges and dynamics that customers across the many sectors we cater to are experiencing and sharing.

This past year has brought upon all businesses and enterprises an unparalleled change and challenge. This was the case at Honeywell, for example, a company with a legacy in innovation and technology for over a century. When I joined the company just months before the pandemic hit we were already in the midst of an intense transformation under the leadership of CEO Darius Adamczyk. This transformation spanned our portfolio and business units. We were already actively working on products and solutions in advanced phases of rollouts that the world has shown a need and demand for pre-pandemic. Those included solutions in edge intelligence, remote operations, quantum computing, warehouse automation, building technologies, safety and health monitoring and of course ESG and climate tech which was based on our exceptional success over the previous decade.

Keep Reading Show less
Jeff Kimbell
Jeff Kimbell is Senior Vice President and Chief Commercial Officer at Honeywell. In this role, he has broad responsibilities to drive organic growth by enhancing global sales and marketing capabilities. Jeff has nearly three decades of leadership experience. Prior to joining Honeywell in 2019, Jeff served as a Partner in the Transformation Practice at McKinsey & Company, where he worked with companies facing operational and financial challenges and undergoing “good to great” transformations. Before that, he was an Operating Partner at Silver Lake Partners, a global leader in technology and held a similar position at Cerberus Capital LP. Jeff started his career as a Manufacturing Team Manager and Engineering Project Manager at Procter & Gamble before becoming a strategy consultant at Bain & Company and holding executive roles at Dell EMC and Transamerica Corporation. Jeff earned a B.S. in electrical engineering at Kansas State University and an M.B.A. at Dartmouth College.

1Password's CEO is ready for a password-free future

Fresh off a $620 million raise, 1Password CEO Jeff Shiner talks about the future of passwords.

1Password is a password manager, but it has plans to be even more.

Business is booming for 1Password. The company just announced it has raised $620 million, at a valuation of $6.8 billion, from a roster of A-list celebrities and well-known venture capitalists.

But what does a password manager need with $620 million? Jeff Shiner, 1Password’s CEO, has some plans. He’s building the team fast — 1Password has tripled in size in the last two years, up to 500 employees, and plans to double again this year — while also expanding the vision of what a password manager can do. 1Password has long been a consumer-first product, but the biggest opportunity lies in bringing the company’s knowhow, its user experience, and its security chops into the business world. 1Password already has more than 100,000 business customers, and it plans to expand fast.

Keep Reading Show less
David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editorial director. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.

Boost 2

Can Matt Mullenweg save the internet?

He's turning Automattic into a different kind of tech giant. But can he take on the trillion-dollar walled gardens and give the internet back to the people?

Matt Mullenweg, CEO of Automattic and founder of WordPress, poses for Protocol at his home in Houston, Texas.
Photo: Arturo Olmos for Protocol

In the early days of the pandemic, Matt Mullenweg didn't move to a compound in Hawaii, bug out to a bunker in New Zealand or head to Miami and start shilling for crypto. No, in the early days of the pandemic, Mullenweg bought an RV. He drove it all over the country, bouncing between Houston and San Francisco and Jackson Hole with plenty of stops in national parks. In between, he started doing some tinkering.

The tinkering is a part-time gig: Most of Mullenweg’s time is spent as CEO of Automattic, one of the web’s largest platforms. It’s best known as the company that runs WordPress.com, the hosted version of the blogging platform that powers about 43% of the websites on the internet. Since WordPress is open-source software, no company technically owns it, but Automattic provides tools and services and oversees most of the WordPress-powered internet. It’s also the owner of the booming ecommerce platform WooCommerce, Day One, the analytics tool Parse.ly and the podcast app Pocket Casts. Oh, and Tumblr. And Simplenote. And many others. That makes Mullenweg one of the most powerful CEOs in tech, and one of the most important voices in the debate over the future of the internet.

Keep Reading Show less
David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editorial director. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.


Biden wants to digitize the government. Can these techies deliver?

A December executive order requires federal agencies to overhaul clunky systems. Meet the team trying to make that happen.

The dramatic uptick in people relying on government services, combined with the move to remote work, rendered inconvenient government processes downright painful.

Photo: Joe Daniel Price/Getty Images

Early last year, top White House officials embarked on a fact-finding mission with technical leaders inside government agencies. They wanted to know the answer to a specific question: If there was anything federal agencies could do to improve the average American’s experience interacting with the government, what would it be?

The list, of course, was a long one.

Keep Reading Show less
Issie Lapowsky

Issie Lapowsky ( @issielapowsky) is Protocol's chief correspondent, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. She also oversees Protocol's fellowship program. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University's Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing.


5 takeaways from Microsoft's Activision Blizzard acquisition

Microsoft just bought one of the world’s largest third-party game publishers. What now?

The nearly $70 billion acquisition gives Microsoft access to some of the most valuable brands in gaming.

Image: Microsoft Gaming

Just one week after Take-Two took the crown for biggest-ever industry acquisition, Microsoft strolled in Tuesday morning and dropped arguably the most monumental gaming news bombshell in years with its purchase of Activision Blizzard. The deal, at nearly $70 billion in all cash, dwarfs Take-Two’s purchase of Zynga, and it stands to reshape gaming as we know it.

The deal raises a number of pressing questions about the future of Activision Blizzard’s workplace culture issues, exclusivity in the game industry and whether such massive consolidation may trigger a regulatory response. None of these may be easily answered anytime soon, as the deal could take up to 18 months to close. But the question marks hanging over Activision Blizzard will loom large in the industry for the foreseeable future as Microsoft navigates its new role as one of the three largest game makers on the planet.

Keep Reading Show less
Nick Statt
Nick Statt is Protocol's video game reporter. Prior to joining Protocol, he was news editor at The Verge covering the gaming industry, mobile apps and antitrust out of San Francisco, in addition to managing coverage of Silicon Valley tech giants and startups. He now resides in Rochester, New York, home of the garbage plate and, completely coincidentally, the World Video Game Hall of Fame. He can be reached at nstatt@protocol.com.
Latest Stories