WASHINGTON – Former President Barack Obama quietly advised the White House for the past five months on its strategy for addressing artificial intelligence, interacting behind the scenes with technology companies and holding Zoom meetings with top West Wing advisers at the request of President Joe Biden, according to advisers to both men.
The joint effort culminated Monday when Biden signed an executive order establishing some government oversight of AI development. It’s the first time Biden has tapped his former boss to help shape a key policy initiative, aides said, and he did so because Obama shares his views on the issue and brings some influence that could help the process moves quickly.
“You have to move fast here, not at the normal pace of government or the normal pace of the private sector, because technology moves very quickly,” White House chief of staff Jeff Zients recalled Biden saying. “We have to move as fast, or ideally faster. And we have to pull all the levers we can.”
AI is one of the things keeping both Biden and Obama up at night, aides said.
Zients said Biden, like Obama, has seen AI as a technology that demands urgent attention given that it has so much promise but also has potentially dire consequences, depending on how it is used.
The current and former presidents discussed the issue in a phone call in June, aides to both said. They agreed on the goal of maximizing technology while limiting risks, according to Obama and Biden advisers.
After that, Biden asked Obama to consult with his team to develop a policy that encourages innovation but also directly addresses the dangers of AI, his advisers said. They then continued the discussion over lunch at the White House, they said.
They agreed that they have a “shared vision,” aides said, and that the federal government should take quick action.
Throughout the rest of the summer and into the fall, Obama remained in regular contact with Zients, Deputy Chief of Staff Bruce Reed and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan to offer comments on the executive order, Biden and Obama aides said. They said their two teams were in contact a dozen times, including as the administration finalized the order before Monday’s announcement.
At an executive order signing ceremony on Monday, Biden called AI “the most important technology of our time,” citing fears that AI-enabled cyberattacks and AI-formulated biological weapons could jeopardize lives of millions. But if used properly, he said, the technology can be incredibly beneficial for the development of new drugs and cancer research.
Obama was particularly helpful in laying the groundwork for tech companies to voluntarily sign up to have their AI models pressure-tested before being released to the public, Biden and Obama advisers said. Part of his approach was to urge industry leaders to consider risks beyond national security, including data integrity, bias and discrimination.
“It really helped establish the mindset that companies can innovate and at the same time be responsible and that companies need to be held accountable,” Zients said.
Obama also reached out to advocacy groups that are concerned about AI, as well as leading academics and researchers who know more about the topic, his advisers said. He used the conversations to inform the guidance he offered to the White House, aides said.
Obama told industry leaders it was something he had been concerned about since his second term, when he tasked his administration with publishing a report on the future of artificial intelligence. He sees the rapid rise and potential dangers of some social media platforms in recent years as a clear warning sign.
“Those people created platforms that helped us connect in new and exciting ways, but they also didn’t anticipate the damage their tools could do. By the time it became clear, much of the damage had already been done,” he wrote this week. “We can’t make the same mistake again.”
The White House is particularly concerned about the role AI could play in amplifying misinformation around key elections.
Former President Donald Trump, the Republican front-runner in the 2024 presidential race, is already amplifying baseless conspiracy theories that imply Obama is somehow still secretly in power, for which there is no evidence.
Biden, a longtime “tech skeptic,” has experimented with ChatGPT, an artificial intelligence-powered language model, and voice cloning technology, his aides said. He’s even seen deepfakes of himself, his assistants said, some of whom were credible enough to joke to staff members: “When the hell did I say that?”
In April, Biden received a demo that included a ChatGPT summary of the Supreme Court’s ruling in New Jersey v. Delaware with three prompts: for a first-grade student, for a law school associate, and as a song lyric by Bruce Springsteen. Biden had joked with Springsteen about the case at a National Medal of Arts ceremony weeks earlier, given their respective roots and what the ruling says about Delaware River rights.
What he saw “deepened his conviction” to act quickly, a senior administration official said.