Dec 11, 2023 - Technology

Stanford aims to help policy makers prepare for AI, robotics and more


Condoleezza Rice at Stanford, Dec. 7. Photo courtesy Hoover Institution

A new project from Stanford University aims to help policymakers get their heads around a range of fast-developing new technologies, from AI and cryptography to robotics and synthetic biology.

Why it matters: A similar effort by an earlier generation brought policy experts together with scientists to navigate the dangers of the nuclear era, Hoover Institution director and former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters at Stanford.

  • Today's explosion of new technology challenges means "we need to have that kind of teaming of people who come from these very different worlds," added Rice, who is co-chair of the new project.

Driving the news: In a daylong meeting with a handful of journalists on Friday, leaders from across the university outlined the thinking behind the recently launched Stanford Emerging Technology Review (SETR), which has already published a 150-page report that focuses on 10 areas regulators will have to address.

  • While the journal won't provide specific policy recommendations, the school's Hoover Institution, the mainstream-conservative think tank leading the effort, has a clear view that it's important for the U.S. and its allies to lead.
  • "If an authoritarian regime like China wins the transformative technologies race, what kind of world [will] we live in?" Rice asked.
  • Regulation, she said, has a role to play — but she cautioned against efforts to regulate too soon and put limits on technologies that adversaries won't.

The day was a mix of theoretical discussion and visits to labs and conversations with professors across campus designed to show the types of issues that are likely to demand attention from regulators.

  • AI professor Fei-Fei Li, along with her students and researchers, demonstrated how brainwave-detecting sensors placed atop a person's head can be used to control a robot to cook a dish — in this case, the Japanese dish sukiyaki.
  • "No monkeys were harmed," Li said — contrasting her researchers' non-invasive approach with efforts that rely on implants and involve controversial animal testing, such as Elon Musk's Neuralink.
  • Although the private sector has tons of resources, Li said universities like Stanford play a critical role in both bringing together researchers across disciplines and offering the creative freedom to explore areas that may not provide immediate commercial return. "There are things money can't buy," Li said.

The big picture: It's more than just AI.

  • Space: There is a vast need for global coordination to deal with growing congestion. Professor Simone D'Amico, whose work involves designing and launching constellations of small satellites, highlighted how a lack of global rules to govern increasingly crowded orbital pathways could lead to collisions that litter space with dangerous debris.
  • Robotics: Stanford showed off a mix of traditional robots learning to perform, special-purpose robots that can be used in surgery and the less well-known realm of soft robotics. In one example of that last area, pneumatics and motors control an extending hose-like robot that could snake through pipes in a nuclear reactor.
  • Synthetic biology: New research offers hope for revolutionizing food production at a time when the world needs to feed more people amid harsher conditions, noted Hoover Institution senior fellow Amy Zegart, one of SETR's co-chairs. Yet those same advances, Zegart noted, could allow people to design "viruses at will from the comfort of your laptop."

Between the lines: The fields intersect, too. For example, AI could fuel advances in fields such as material science, which in turn could help give AI the faster chips and computers it needs to move forward.

  • "It doesn't get the sexy headlines but it's really important," said SETR director Herbert Lin. And the AI field knows it, too: "They would be screwed without the advances from from Nvidia and so on."
  • Similarly, Stanford is trying to bring all of its disciplines to bear, working across the campus in ways that it hasn't always been able to. The project began with Rice gathering professors from across campus, first in a series of lunches and then for a dinner at her house.

Yes, but: These emerging technologies are moving at very different paces, as was made clear by both the discussions and demonstrations. While AI technology seems to improve by the week, advances in areas from nuclear fusion to robotics have been far slower.

  • "It's easier to deal with bits than atoms" was a refrain heard multiple times during the day.

What's next: Cautioned by former Stanford president and project advisor John Hennessy that an annual report won't be sufficient for policymakers to keep up with these dynamic technologies, SETR plans a series of reports, podcasts and events in Washington D.C. to further its work.

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