“The framework enables a set of binding requirements for federal agencies to put in place safeguards for the use of AI so that we can harness the benefits and enable the public to trust the services the federal government provides,” says Jason Miller, OMB’s deputy director for management.
The draft memo highlights certain uses of AI where the technology can harm rights or safety, including health care, housing, and law enforcement—all situations where algorithms have in the past resulted in discrimination or denial of services.
Examples of potential safety risks mentioned in the OMB draft include automation for critical infrastructure like dams and self-driving vehicles like the Cruise robotaxis that were shut down last week in California and are under investigation by federal and state regulators after a pedestrian struck by a vehicle was dragged 20 feet. Examples of how AI could violate citizens rights in the draft memo include predictive policing, AI that can block protected speech, plagiarism- or emotion-detection software, tenant-screening algorithms, and systems that can impact immigration or child custody.
According to OMB, federal agencies currently use more than 700 algorithms, though inventories provided by federal agencies are incomplete. Miller says the draft memo requires federal agencies to share more about the algorithms they use. “Our expectation is that in the weeks and months ahead, we’re going to improve agencies’ abilities to identify and report on their use cases,” he says.
Vice President Kamala Harris mentioned the OMB memo alongside other responsible AI initiatives in remarks today at the US Embassy in London, a trip made for the UK’s AI Safety Summit this week. She said that while some voices in AI policymaking focus on catastrophic risks like the role AI can some day play in cyberattacks or the creation of biological weapons, bias and misinformation are already being amplified by AI and affecting individuals and communities daily.
Merve Hickok, author of a forthcoming book about AI procurement policy and a researcher at the University of Michigan, welcomes how the OMB memo would require agencies to justify their use of AI and assign specific people responsibility for the technology. That’s a potentially effective way to ensure AI doesn’t get hammered into every government program, she says.
But the provision of waivers could undermine those mechanisms, she fears. “I would be worried if we start seeing agencies use that waiver extensively, especially law enforcement, homeland security, and surveillance,” she says. “Once they get the waiver it can be indefinite.”
The volume required can be huge. In the US, chip fabs use far less water than the agriculture and power generation industries, and semiconductors haven’t spurred political tensions over water resources at national scale, says Chris Miller, a history professor at Tufts University in Massachusetts and author of the recent book Chip War. Still, squeezes have been a concern in TSMC’s home of Taiwan, where droughts have pitted local farmers, who saw their irrigation systems shut off, against the chip maker.
Not just any water will do. Just as the air inside a chip fab must be so free from dust that people must wear all-enveloping coveralls, the semiconductor industry uses a special category of “ultrapure” water to clean silicon wafers throughout the manufacturing process. While standard drinking water might have a purity of 100 to 800 microsiemens per centimeter—a measure of electrical conductivity used as one indicator of contamination—ultrapure water has less than .055 microsiemens per centimeter, according to Gradiant, a water recycling startup based in Boston that works with chip makers. Ultrapure water needs to have an extremely low conductivity, which correlates to only a small number of troublesome ions, or charged atoms.
“If you want to have the highest possible performance of the material, very often you have to go to extreme purity,” says Cornell electrical and computer engineering professor Grace Xing, who also directs a new cross-university semiconductor research center called SUPREME. “That’s one of the reasons the semiconductor industry requires a lot of water.”
Producing ultrapure water is a multistep process that removes a variety of contaminants, including microbes and other microscopic creatures that you might find in oceans and lakes, as well as smaller particles, including even salt ions. One technique used is reverse osmosis, also used in desalination plants, which involves pushing water through a membrane with pores small enough to filter out salts. (Chip fabs also use less-pure water, similar to that which flows from household faucets, for cooling manufacturing equipment.)
Given water’s crucial role in chip manufacturing, recovering and reusing wastewater has become a priority for the industry. The more that can be reused within a fab, the less its need to tap the local water supply. Right now, the proportion of waste water that can be recycled varies between companies and fabs, depending on the manufacturing processes in use and the investment in water treatment. Still, they’re all confronting the same basic problem: As wafers are cleaned, ultrapure water becomes contaminated and requires thorough cleaning before it can be reused by a fab or discharged into a public wastewater treatment system.
Cleaning up the soiled water is a complicated process because myriad contaminants can be found in fab wastewater. Lithography and etching can produce acidic wastewater, and can even contaminate it with powerful hydrofluoric acid. Suspended silicon particles can show up when wafers are thinned down, while the use of solvents including isopropyl alcohol can leave organic carbon residues.
The industry has developed ways to separate out different components of that wastewater, similar to how the general population sort recycling, says Prakash Govindan, cofounder and COO of Gradiant. “The semiconductor industry is actually very advanced when it comes to dealing with wastewater,” he says. “The advanced companies, the American multinationals we work with—but also the Korean and Taiwanese companies we work with—all of them segregate their wastewater into more than 10 kinds, minimum, and some of them into 15 or 16.”
Why speak up when you’ve won the game? McGough admits that her “hard up” working class background might make her more likely to feel that she now has “enough.” She left school for her first job at 16 and set up her first company with her ex-husband with “two laptops and a list of contacts.” Luck and timing played a role—her RF compliance company ended up being part of a growth industry, and the ability to hire workers from the European Union contributed to her success.
The Patriotic Millionaires are eager to stress the economic case that wealth taxes could increase stability and help sustain both a healthy, educated workforce and a middle class of consumers with disposable income—so paying more tax could end up being good for wealthy businesspeople. For McGough, though, it’s about fairness and common sense in an era of widening inequality and deteriorating public services. The richest 1 percent of Brits hold more wealth than the poorest 70 percent combined. “I see it as a problem if you’ve got so much money that you no longer need a functioning society,” she says. “The country needs the super rich to be paying a proper share of taxation.”
The million-dollar question, then, is how much tax?
The group bases its proposals on research into wealth taxes and inequality, with an added dose of pragmatism: “Inheritance tax will never change,” says McGough. In the UK, the group is calling for an annual wealth tax of 1-2 percent for wealth above £10 million, which would affect around 20,000 people but could generate up to £22 billion a year, according to analysis from the Wealth Tax Commission at the LSE and the University of Warwick. That would be almost enough to give the entire public sector a pay increase in line with inflation.
Although wealth taxes are not a new idea, many of these taxes were removed in the 1980s and 1990s, and only four European countries—Spain, Norway, Switzerland, and Belgium—collect net wealth taxes, with levies in France and Italy on selected assets.
The cases against a wealth tax range from “I pay enough already,” which McGough says she has encountered a lot, to arguments around administrative costs, the risk of capital flight, and the potential increase in tax avoidance and evasion. It was a mix of bureaucratic issues and fears of a crisis of confidence in the markets that prevented Harold Wilson’s government from introducing a UK wealth tax in the 1970s.
As for capital flight, it’s conceded that some wealthy individuals may leave or move their money as a result of tax increases. But analysis by Cristobal Young, an assistant professor of sociology at Stanford University, suggests that the majority would remain. While 5 percent of billionaires live a transnationalist lifestyle between London, Switzerland, and tropical tax havens, the remaining 95 percent live in the country where they were born, educated, or started their business.
A new class of conscious multimillionaires—the UK arm has yet to snag its first billionaire—are leveraging their access to directly advocate for new wealth taxes to all-party parliamentary groups, partnering with Tax Justice UK. Events focused on tax and investments and social mobility are planned for 2023, though the group is generally opposed to this kind of influence of wealth on politics via private lobbying and its undermining of trust in democracy. For now, the invitations to Westminster are viewed as a necessary evil.
Perhaps the moves are also a signal that self-interest extends beyond the business case. As some billionaires build luxurious bunkers, American members like investors Nick Hanauer and Karen Stewart are preoccupied with pitchforks and the fates of Marie Antoinette and the Romanovs.
The Patriotic Millionaires’ plea to tax the rich could cut through precisely because it comes from the wealthy themselves. Researchers from King’s College London and the University of St. Gallen, Switzerland, surveyed the history of wealth taxes in 2021, with data from 1880 onward across 45 countries. They found that the forces of democratization and modernization, and even the outbreak of wars, do not usually speed up the introduction of wealth taxes. Instead, they have mainly been used as an emergency tax when countries faced the shock of an economic recession. As with McGough’s own success in business, timing might be everything.
This article was first published in the May/June 2023 edition of WIRED UK
While all the major Silicon Valley social media firms—from Instagram to TikTok—say they block children from using their apps, these senators say those efforts have failed.
“It’s not working,” Schatz says.“There’s no free speech right to be jammed with an algorithm that makes you upset, and these algorithms are making us increasingly polarized and disparaging and depressed and angry at each other. And it’s bad enough that it’s happening to all of us adults, the least we can do is protect our kids.”
While the measure’s sponsored by progressive Democrats and one of the most ardent conservatives in the Senate, lawmakers from across the ideological spectrum are equally skeptical of the proposal, showing the difficult road ahead for passing any new media measure, including those aimed at children. Many lawmakers are torn between protecting kids online and preserving the robust internet as we know it. Naturally, most senators are looking at their own families for guidance.
“My grandkids have flip phones. They don’t have smartphones until they get older,” senator Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican, says. Romney—who’s open to the idea, if initially dubious—says there’s not even uniformity in his own family on these issues.
“I have five sons, so there are five different families and they do have different approaches,” Romney says. “And the youngest son is the one that’s most strict, and the oldest son didn’t really think of it as being such a big deal.”
For Smith, the Minnesota senator worried about her party coming across as Big Sister, there wasn’t even uniformity in her own household when her boys were fighting over the family’s first desktop computer ages ago. And her kids also proved to be (mini)hackers.
“We were trying to figure out how to monitor their interactions with the computer, and we quickly figured out that, at least for them, it was hard to put hard and fast rules, because kids find a way,” Smith says. “And different parents have different rules for what they think is the right thing for their kids.”
While Smith is open to the new measure, she’s wary. “I tend to be, I guess, a little bit suspicious of hard and fast rules, because I’m not sure that they work and because I sort of think that parents and kids should have the freedom to decide what’s right for their family,” Smith says.
While Smith is a progressive Democrat, on this new measure, she’s currently aligned with senator Rand Paul, a Libertarian-leaning Kentucky Republican. “Parents exercise some oversight of what their kids view on the internet, what they view on television, all these things are important. I’m not sure I want the federal government [involved],” Paul says.
The new measure also has competition. Just last week senators Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, and South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, reintroduced their EARN IT Act—the Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies Act. That measure would strip away the current Section 230 protections for any sites that publish online child sexual exploitation content. Section 230 remains a highly controversial law because it protects online businesses from liability for much of what its users post on their platforms.
The literally unprecedented indictment against Donald Trump marks an outright dangerous—and politically fraught—moment for the United States and serves as a reminder of the unparalleled level of criminality and conspiracy that surrounded the 2016 election.
It’s easy to look back at the 2016 election as though its outcome was inevitable—that Hillary Clinton was too weak of a candidate, one whose years of high-priced speeches had made her lose touch with the working-class voters of Wisconsin and Pennsylvania; that “but her emails” and Jim Comey’s repeated, inappropriate, and misguided meddling in the election turned the tide. But the new indictment of Trump is an important historical corrective, a moment that makes clear how the US, as a country, must reckon with the fact that Trump’s surprise victory was aided by not one but two separate criminal conspiracies.
In the 2016 race’s final push, in an election that came down to incredibly narrow victories in just three states—10,704 voters in Michigan, 46,765 in Pennsylvania, and 22,177 in Wisconsin—and where Trump lost the overall popular vote by some 3 million votes, he was helped along by a massive and wide-ranging official Russian government operation. That effort was funded in part by oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is now behind the brutal combat of his Wagner Group mercenary army in Ukraine, which targeted US social media companies and activists on the ground. According to the US Department of Justice’s exhaustive report, in the second arm of the Russian operation, the military intelligence service GRU hacked top Democratic officials, leaked their emails, and shifted the national narrative around Clinton and other Democrats. (Not to mention that this gave rise to the Pizzagate conspiracy theory and, arguably, QAnon.)
Then there was the separate criminal conspiracy that was the subject of today’s new indictment in New York: the plot in the final weeks of the 2016 election by Trump’s campaign, Trump family fixer Michael Cohen, and the National Enquirer to pay hush money to bury stories of two of the candidate’s affairs, including infamously one with porn star Stormy Daniels.
While it may seem like news of such an affair would have ended up being a nothingburger amid the campaign’s final weeks, it’s worth remembering the specific context that Cohen and the Trump orbit faced in those finals hours of the campaign. They were performing a fraught and knife’s-edge balancing act to hold onto support from conservatives and evangelicals in the wake of the devastating Access Hollywood tape, a moment where vice presidential nominee Mike Pence seriously considered throwing in the towel himself. The follow-on of more non-family-values-friendly stories might well have begun an unrecoverable spiral. (It’s also worth remembering the still-suspicious interplay of these two threads: how, on a single Friday in October 2016, US intelligence leaders announced publicly for the first time that Russia was behind the election meddling, the Washington Post scooped the existence of the lewd Access Hollywood tape, and then, hours later, Wikileaks began dumping a fresh set of stolen emails from Clinton campaign chair John Podesta.)
The new criminal case related to that second Stormy Daniels conspiracy, brought by Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg, also is a reminder of the historic mistake by the US Justice Department to not pursue its own charges against Trump in the same matter. This was a mind-boggling abdication of responsibility given that the Justice Department—in the midst of Donald Trump’s own presidency, no less!—prosecuted Cohen for the same conspiracy, naming Trump in the charges against Cohen as “Individual 1” and, according to a new book by Elie Honig, outlined in a draft indictment Trump’s personal direction and involvement in the case.