By: Tony Samp and Steven R. Phillips

A proposal intended to improve the use of AI across the federal government cleared an important legislative hurdle on November 6 as the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee approved the AI in Government Act of 2019 (S 1363).

The measure, introduced earlier this year by Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI) with bipartisan co-sponsorship, would create the AI Center of Excellence within the General Services Administration (GSA) to promote the efforts of the federal government to develop innovative uses of artificial intelligence technologies, and improve cohesion and competency in the use of AI, with the goals of benefitting the public and enhancing productivity and efficiency. The version of the legislation adopted by the committee was based on amended legislative text offered by Senators Rob Portman (R-OH), co-chair of the Senate AI Caucus, and Gary Peters (D-MI), the ranking Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee.

Under the amended version of the bill, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), in coordination with the Office of Science and Technology Policy and other federal government stakeholders, would be mandated to issue a memorandum to executive branch agencies informing the development of policies for federal acquisition and use of AI technologies by the agencies; recommending approaches for removing barriers against the use of AI to promote innovative applications while protecting civil rights, and economic and national security; and identifying best practices for mitigating any discriminatory impact or bias, or other unintended consequences. A draft version of the memorandum would be open for public comment before final adoption, and federal agencies would subsequently submit to OMB and publicly post on their websites their plans for complying with the new mandate. OMB would update the memorandum every two years for the next 10 years after enactment.

Additionally, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) would be called on to identify key skills and competencies needed for positions related to AI and establish an occupational series, or revise an existing job series, to include positions primarily focused on AI. OPM would be directed to estimate the number of employees in AI-related positions in each federal agency and establish forecasts for the number of AI jobs needed.

The AI in Government Act has been endorsed by BSA (Software Alliance), the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, Intel, the Internet Association, Lincoln Network, Microsoft, the Niskanen Center, and the R Street Institute, among others.

The legislation now heads to the full Senate for further action. A companion bill (HR 2575) has been introduced in the House, sponsored by Representative Jerry McNerney (D-CA), co-chair of the House AI Caucus, also with bipartisan co-sponsors, and is pending before the Oversight and Reform Committee.