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Get out the sewing kit. More piecemeal ideas for regulating AI are in the works


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Patchwork regulation of face biometrics by governments — including a proposed mild set of rules in China’s oldest special economic zone — is gaining momentum. Facebook’s response to it all seems to be a plea for patchwork regulation of individual AI apps.

An article in Barron’s, sourced from Agence France-Presse, quotes Yann LeCun, Facebook’s chief AI scientist, saying he “generally” prefers governments to regulate individual applications of AI and not the technology.

LeCun is not someone the media typically approaches for policy or government-related topics, but he is revered in the AI industry as a seminal source of innovation and vision. It is likely his opinion will have an effect on the regulation debate.

LeCun told an AFP reporter that he is dismayed with a new EU proposal prohibiting the use of facial recognition algorithms to identify people in the public space.

He warned regulation that does not recognize “good purposes” in individual use cases risks stifling technology development and, indeed, the EU’s ability to lead that development.

The article notes that former Google chief executive Eric Schmidt has harshly criticized regulating AI because, after 30 years of global research and development, it is still too timorous to be corralled.

Meanwhile, less-than-national regulation remains the most common vehicle for trying to control AI and its outcomes.

The U.S. state of Maine Wednesday passed a sweeping — and unanimous — ban on the use of face biometrics by most agencies, employees and officials at the state, county and municipal levels.

It is stronger than the only other such law, which was enacted last year in Washington state, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, which pushed for passage of Maine’s legislation.

Only in criminal investigations where there is probable cause in a serious crime can a facial recognition search be done, and in those instances, the requestor must have the FBI and Maine’s motor vehicles department do the looking.

The ACLU uses its press release celebrating the Maine law to criticize the Microsoft-supported Washington law, which has been judged by privacy and human rights advocates as weak.

The differing assessments only make concerns about fragmented policy more acute.

Uncoordinated actions also are being reported in Australia.

New South Wales state police reportedly are testing the federal government’s face biometrics system even as a proposed law on its use is debated in parliament.

According to The Guardian, national leaders are discussing the creation of the “Capability,” a central database of images collected by various federal and state agencies. Two years ago, legislation enabling intelligence and security agencies to share the same set of images died in committee.

But the most remarkable evidence that national governments will not or cannot write an unassailable script for the use of facial recognition comes from Shenzhen, China.

Local politicians are hashing ideas for a law that would curb where surveillance cameras can be installed.

The proposal is weak tea, indeed, compared to actions taking place in the democratically controlled European Union. But then, Beijing is autocratic, and has created the most extensive network of CCTVs feeding data into algorithms capable of matching faces in near real-time.

There is no independent accounting for how accurate the nationwide system is. It is, however, being used to identify religious and political minorities resulting in, for instance, concentration camps full of Muslim Uyghurs.

Shenzhen is not China’s Silicon Valley, but the city and surrounding area is a center of technology innovation.

The South China Morning Post has reported that a proposed law would ban facial recognition surveillance in, for example, “hotel rooms, hospital wards, dormitories, public bathrooms and fitting rooms.”

On the other hand, the legislation would require surveillance in subway stations, banks, airports, museums and malls — all “important public spaces and facilities that involve public safety.”

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