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Why one AI expert was pleased Biden addressed AI during his State of the Union

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Last night's State of the Union address made history when President Biden said this.

(SOUNDBITE OF 2024 STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Harnessed the promise of AI to protect us from peril. Ban AI voice impersonations and more.

SHAPIRO: Sitting in the audience was Fei-Fei Li, co-director of the Human-Centered AI Institute at Stanford University. She ran into the president after he made those remarks. She had last met with him back in June for a White House meeting about artificial intelligence.

FEI-FEI LI: He recognized me from half a year ago. And I said, Mr. President, you made history by mentioning AI for the first time in a State of the Union speech. And he had this broad smile on his face, and he said, yes, and we have to keep it safe.

SHAPIRO: When Biden says something like harness the power of AI, that can have different meanings. Like, it could be harness as in use it to improve our work, or harness like rein it in and get it under control. Do you have a sense of what he has in mind?

LI: I absolutely believe he sees technology, especially a technology like AI, as a double-edged sword. He sees its tremendous potential of curing diseases, finding climate solutions, finding new energy, new materials, empowering our teachers and students, empowering our clinicians and healthcare workers. He sees that. In the meantime, he also sees that any powerful technology can bring intended or unintended harm to people, to society. And it is our joint collective responsibility to harness that. Last June, during that session, we talked about adopting a moonshot mentality to invest in public sector AI to ensure America's leadership in AI. And a lot of that has to do with making sure AI is a public good, making sure we bring the positive power of AI to the society.

SHAPIRO: Artificial intelligence is not an area where there is an obvious Republican-Democratic divide. Do you think this is something where bipartisan legislation could pass?

LI: This is absolutely bipartisan. I have been coming to D.C. more than I imagined as a computer scientist in the past couple of years. We meet with so many Republican and Democrat leaders in Senate, in Congress. We started working with the White House back in 2019, and that's still Trump administration, on this issue. So it is a bipartisan issue.

SHAPIRO: You know, one thing that Biden did mention specifically in the State of the Union address last night was a ban on voice impersonation. Many people will remember that a robocall used AI to impersonate Biden's voice just before the New Hampshire primary. Of all the things he could have talked about, why do you think he zeroed in on that?

LI: Well, specifically why, I don't know, but I think this is symbolic, too, the double-edged sword nature of a powerful technology. While we celebrate AI's potential, as I mentioned earlier, we do have to recognize the responsibility of not using this technology for harm. We are in an election year, and all democracies across the world recognize that disinformation has a profound impact in democracy. And voice impersonation, I think, it's maybe a symbolic example of what AI can do in terms of creating myths and disinformation.

SHAPIRO: Fei-Fei Li is co-director of Stanford's Human-Centered AI Institute. Thank you for speaking with us today.

LI: Thank you, Ari, for inviting me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kathryn Fox
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.