technology : Exclusive: U.S. Voters Value Safe AI Development Over Racing Against China, Poll Shows

Monday 8 July 2024 10:49 PM

Nafeza 2 world - July 8, 2024 12:46 PM EDT

A large majority of American voters are skeptical of the argument that the U.S. should race ahead to build ever more powerful artificial intelligence, unconstrained by domestic regulations, in an effort to compete with China, according to new polling shared exclusively with TIME.

The findings indicate that American voters disagree with a common narrative levied by the tech industry, in which CEOs and lobbyists have repeatedly argued the U.S. must tread carefully with AI regulation in order to not hand the advantage to their geopolitical rival. And they reveal a startling level of bipartisan consensus on AI policy, with both Republicans and Democrats in support of the government placing some limits on AI development in favor of safety and national security.

According to the poll, 75% of Democrats and 75% of Republicans believe that “taking a careful controlled approach” to AI—by preventing the release of tools that terrorists and foreign adversaries could use against the U.S.—is preferable to “moving forward on AI as fast as possible to be the first country to get extremely powerful AI.” A majority of voters support more stringent security practices at AI companies, and are worried about the risk of China stealing their most powerful models, the poll shows. 

The poll was carried out in late June by the AI Policy Institute (AIPI), a U.S. nonprofit that advocates for “a more cautious path” in AI development. The findings show that 50% of voters believe the U.S. should use its advantage in the AI race to prevent any country from building a powerful AI system, by enforcing “safety restrictions and aggressive testing requirements.” That’s compared to just 23% who believe the U.S. should try to build powerful AI as fast as possible to outpace China and achieve a decisive advantage over Beijing.

The polling also suggests that voters may be broadly skeptical of “open-source” AI, or the view that tech companies should be allowed to release the source code of their powerful AI models. Some technologists argue that open-source AI encourages innovation and reduces the monopoly power of the biggest tech companies. But others say it is a recipe for danger as AI systems grow more powerful and unpredictable. 

“What I perceive from the polling is that stopping AI development is not seen as an option,” says Daniel Colson, the executive director of the AIPI. “But giving industry free rein is also seen as risky. And so there’s the desire for some third way. And when we present that in the polling—that third path, mitigated AI development with guardrails—is the one that people overwhelmingly want.” 

The survey also shows that 63% of American voters think it should be illegal to export powerful AI models to potential U.S. adversaries like China, including 73% of Republicans and 59% of Democrats. Just 14% of voters disagree. 

A sample of 1,040 Americans was interviewed for the survey, which was representative by education levels, gender, race, and the political parties for whom respondents cast their votes in the 2020 presidential election. The margin of error given for the results is 3.4% in both directions.

So far there has been no comprehensive AI regulation in the U.S., with the White House encouraging different government agencies to regulate the technology themselves where it falls under their existing remits. That strategy appears to have been put in jeopardy, however, by a recent Supreme Court ruling that limits the ability of federal agencies to apply broad-brushstroke rules set by Congress to specific, or new, circumstances.

“Congress is so slow to act that there's a lot of interest in being able to delegate authorities to existing agencies or a new agency, to increase the responsiveness of government” when it comes to AI policy, Colson says. “This [ruling] definitely makes that harder.”

Even if federal AI legislation seems unlikely any time soon, let alone before the 2024 election, recent polling by the AIPI and others suggests that voters aren’t as polarized on AI as they are on other issues facing the nation. Earlier polling by the AIPI found that 75% of Democrats and 80% of Republicans believe that U.S. AI policy should seek to prevent AI from quickly reaching superhuman capabilities. The polls also showed that 83% of Americans believe AI could accidentally cause a catastrophic event, and that 82% prefer slowing down AI development to account for that risk, compared to just 8% who would like to see it accelerated.

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