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Inside Reid Hoffman’s meeting with President Biden
NEWS CLIP: In San Francisco today, President Biden convened a meeting of artificial intelligence experts to weigh its risks.
NEWS CLIP: The White House releasing details of a new executive order that would direct federal agencies to regulate as well as shape the growth.
PRESIDENT BIDEN (NEWS CLIP): As artificial intelligence expands the boundary of human possibility and tests the bounds of human understanding, this landmark executive order is a testament to what we stand for: safety, security, trust, openness.
NEWS CLIP: This is likely to be the most aggressive piece of American regulation over this fast growing…
NEWS CLIP: The White House is calling this the strongest action that any government has taken on artificial intelligence, safety and security.
BOB SAFIAN: Hi everyone, it’s Bob Safian, former editor of Fast Company, founder of the Flux Grou,p and host of Rapid Response.
My colleague, Reid Hoffman, met with President Joe Biden in San Francisco several weeks back, with the topic of AI high on the agenda.
In this very special episode, Reid gives us an exclusive window into this closed-door meeting.
Biden is the first American president who’s had to face the full challenge of AI — from regulation to its emerging impact on the economy, jobs, social discourse, and of course, its potential for misuse by bad actors.
Reid talks with me about all this and more. It’s good stuff, so let’s get to it.
Inside Reid Hoffman’s meeting with President Biden
BOB SAFIAN: Alright, great. Well, Reid, let’s dive in. Let’s dive in.
You had an opportunity recently in San Francisco to meet with President Biden. You talked about AI, among other things. You haven’t spoken about that elsewhere. So, what can you tell us about it?
REID HOFFMAN: I think people would be surprised, because they think, oh, Biden — wonderful president, gentleman of an older generation, older than both of us. So I think a little bit of the surprise is that, look, he’s actually completely with it. He was like, I see a lot of discussion happening here. There’s obviously a lot of unknowns. It’s obviously moving fast. And this is one of the key things that I think is really, really excellent about the man and about the man as president was he doesn’t show up going, well, I read something and I know what it is and let me tell you what it is. It’s the, look, I recognize a lot of stuff happening here and I’m not an expert, so how do I approach it?
What do you tell me? Here are my questions. Are there more important questions? Here are the people that I have working on this. Are they working on the right things? Are they talking to the right people? So he brings an open mind and asking questions to it. And his goals are most fundamentally, being kind of a man of the people. He’s not like, okay, look, great to hear that the bunch of different opportunities for American industry. And great to hear that startup people are generally actually thinking about these ethical questions, that we’re having discourses, like the one we’re doing today, and that’s really important. But what does it mean for the bulk of Americans? What’s going to go on? How do their lives become better with this? What does it mean for their jobs? What does it mean for the way they care for their families? What does it mean for education? And that kind of thing was actually his top of mind question. There’s obviously a whole set of other questions that come in too, but that was the one that he most wanted to go, “I don’t want to leave the room without getting a sense of that.”
SAFIAN: I mean, we have everyone answering the question about, what does the future of AI look like to them? And I’m curious, did you get a sense from him whether he’s an AI optimist or an AI pessimist? Is there the regulatory environment’s part of that, I guess, but do you get a feel for that?
HOFFMAN: Well, I think he is an optimist because he is an optimist about the American people. He recognizes there could be bad people doing bad things. He’s not blind, but he wants to say, we can be better. We can be the people we aspire to be, and we can build interesting things. So he’s inherently optimistic in the view of, it is possible to shape this positively. And I think it isn’t so much … cause he goes, “I know about the technology,” or like, “I’m a technological expert and let me tell you why he should be optimistic.” He’s like, “No, no, that’s not what he’s doing.” He is like, “He’s open minded, he knows the things he doesn’t know,” but he goes, “look, I believe in people caring about the future, collaborating together, making that happen, and what should I do to be helpful to that, which can include the here’s what we try to stop the things that are bad and here’s the things that we do to support a good.” But I’d say it’s more of an AI optimist, but not because he goes, I’m an expert in the technology, but more because he’s a believer in human beings being able to do good things.
Reid Hoffman on President Biden’s approach to understanding AI
SAFIAN: Alright, so let me take it to the other side a little bit. Did you get a sense whether Biden wants to lead, wants to be ahead of the curve in setting parameters from a regulatory and government framework or whether he’s sort of okay if some of that is done in other places and he kind of fills in around it?
HOFFMAN: I think their approach has been unusually wise, because what they first did is bring a whole bunch of companies and innovators into the White House and say we’re going to push you on a set of voluntary commitments. You need to be showing that you’re responsible. You need to be making commitments that aren’t just like slogans, but also things that you’re actually navigating risks and you’re investing in it and you’re doing it.
It’s a way of getting a sense of which things are they saying, we see this as an issue and we could do this and we’ll even make voluntary commitments. Then we take those voluntary commitments and we start talking to the world at large, university people, and say, okay, well, what are we missing? What is not yet there? Okay, let’s hear that. Let’s hire some people specifically about doing it. So let’s have a deputy chief of staff who’s focused on this. Let’s take the best person that we currently have working within the broader White House, make them work for the deputy chief of staff.
Let’s get the various multiple agencies coordinating together, and then let’s get them all engaged in this, which is one of the reasons of course you end up with a longest ever executive order, I think… 110 pages. And let’s make sure that we are all working on this really important thing and we’re bringing that together. And then, in what we’re releasing, we’re not going, and here is the final thing. It’s like, look, let’s put out some things that are amplifications of the voluntary commitments for an industry guideline.
Let’s make sure that you’re in dialogue with us. And let’s make sure that a number of different agencies are paying attention to it. And so all of this, I think, was a masterclass in effective, how do we take something dynamic which we don’t necessarily fully understand, either as industry or government, understand that the future could be so much better than the present and that we need to get there, even on the safety things, the tools for dealing with safety are more important than the future.
Now that being said, I think they want to be, kind of, setting a baseline norm as regulatory leaders, to your specific question. And what’s more, I’d say I think they’re willing to learn from other people. So part of the EO, they were talking to the UK. The UK had done a UK AI Safety Institute and they said, we should have one too. The two should be coordinating. The G7, I think, is going to be very centered on AI the next year.
And so all of that, I think, is a very good thing to be coordinating. And I think he doesn’t want to go, okay, look, fine, other places will drag us into it. It’s like, no, no, we want to establish a good norm, which is both the right amount… not too little, not too much, and the thing that gets us into the future. That’s what I think they are doing in a very good way and are being leaders, but not leaders of no one else needs to do anything. We are participatory leaders.
Why Reid wanted to meet with President Biden
SAFIAN: Listening to you, and I’m sure everyone else listening here is saying to themselves, well, I understand why the president wanted to talk to this guy. I don’t really understand all of this stuff, but this is someone who understands a lot of it. For you, going in to talk to him, was there a goal that you had out of it? Is there something that you took away that was valuable to you from that experience?
HOFFMAN: Well, I think there are a number of things. I mean, there’s obviously stuff that he’s got decades of experience that I have no experience on. And I never meet with people without having things that I would ask questions of them as, Bob, you yourself experienced that. When I’m doing a meeting, I always have at least a question. I would say the thing that I probably most got away from, in that, was this notion of what’s the way that you should set a set of expectations and kind of a political compass around the everyday person. What’s the concern of someone who said, look, I’m not in the tech industry. I’m not doing this. I’m trying to navigate the experience of my life, things like gas prices and other kinds of things. And I’m trying to navigate that, because one of the things that I think if Biden is like, okay, what is that person’s experience of their life, of their work, of their family, and how can we be making that better, year by year?
SAFIAN: Well, what’s heartening hearing all of that too is, yeah, you may be excited about this stuff you folks in Silicon Valley, but how’s it going to change the way my kid gets taught at school? Those are the things that people worry about.
HOFFMAN: Yes, exactly. And by the way, with change, it’ll always have some disruption. There’ll always be some uncertainty on it. It’ll be like, well, what should be the policy? Could I write essays with it? Does it show your work? Is the teacher going to respond positively or negatively? I mean, the things that we can accomplish in elevating humanity are right here, right now. Let’s really make sure we get to them. And I think that’s part of the joy of it. It’ll change things. But that’s a change that on the other side will be better, cause by the way, you go to your average American and say, this will be better for your kids, this will be better for your family. It’ll just be some transition in getting there and then people tend to be the, hey, I’m okay. I’m game.
SAFIAN: I want to thank Reid for sharing his exclusive experience with the president. Undoubtedly, there are going to be things happening with AI in 2024 that no one can predict.
But it’s reassuring to know that there are concerted efforts at the highest levels for an adaptive, realistic and people-centered approach to oversight.
I’m Bob Safian. Thanks for listening.