A U.S. Commerce Department agency is opening an inquiry into how companies and regulators can ensure that artificial intelligence systems are trustworthy, legal and ethical.

The probe by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration will focus on the best methods for auditing AI systems and will eventually produce policy recommendations for the White House and Congress as the technology rapidly becomes mainstream.

“The goal of this process is to come up with recommendations, based on what we hear from experts in this field, about what government can do to make sure we’re promoting responsible AI innovation,” said Alan Davidson, the head of NTIA, in an interview.

Chatbots—computer programs designed to convincingly simulate human conversation—are quickly becoming a central part of everyday life. The rapid uptake of ChatGPT, currently the most popular chatbot, prompted thousands of AI experts and leaders to call for a pause on the technology before proper guardrails are in place. Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Microsoft Inc. have introduced their own chatbots to keep up with ChatGPT, which was created by research lab OpenAI. Meta Platforms Inc. also introduced a bot last year.

NTIA is inviting companies, civil society groups, researchers and the public to contribute their thoughts to the process. Critics say AI systems can perpetuate real-world biases, confuse and deceive consumers, spread misinformation, and even violate pre-existing laws if there is not proper government and industry oversight.

NTIA’s effort is the latest U.S. government initiative to set standards around AI. The White House last year published a blueprint for an “AI Bill of Rights,” which called for built-in privacy protections, stronger safety measures and checks against discrimination. The National Institute of Standards and Technology finalized voluntary AI guidance encouraging developers to implement checks on their systems to improve public trust in the technology. The Federal Trade Commission, meanwhile, has said publicly that it is looking at any consumer protection or antitrust-related issues around AI.

Davidson said that NTIA’s process will add “another layer” to the preexisting work done by the White House and NIST, focused specifically on the best way to audit AI.

“This inquiry is about how we might use that risk framework to promote good auditing and assessment practices that help people trust the systems that companies are building,” Davidson said.

Davidson said the inquiry was in the works for months before the ChatGPT hype resulted in a public reckoning around the future of AI. But, he added, his agency hopes to capitalize on that momentum.

NTIA in previous administrations has faced criticism for acting slowly and failing to use the full breadth of its authority. But Davidson said he sees it as his mission to make sure NTIA provides comprehensive advice about technology to the White House and Congress.

Photo: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg