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This has just become a big week for AI regulation

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This has just become a big week for AI regulation


It’s a bumper week for government pushback on the misuse of artificial intelligence. 

Today the EU released its long-awaited set of AI regulations, an early draft of which leaked last week. The regulations are wide ranging, with restrictions on mass surveillance and the use of AI to manipulate people.

But a statement of intent from the US Federal Trade Commission, outlined in a short blog post by staff lawyer Elisa Jillson on April 19, may have more teeth in the immediate future. According to the post, the FTC plans to go after companies using and selling biased algorithms.

A number of companies will be running scared right now, says Ryan Calo, a professor at the University of Washington, who works on technology and law. “It’s not really just this one blog post,” he says. “This one blog post is a very stark example of what looks to be a sea change.”

The EU is known for its hard line against Big Tech, but the FTC has taken a softer approach, at least in recent years. The agency is meant to police unfair and dishonest trade practices. Its remit is narrow—it does not have jurisdiction over government agencies, banks, or nonprofits. But it can step in when companies misrepresent the capabilities of a product they are selling, which means firms that claim their facial recognition systems, predictive policing algorithms or healthcare tools are not biased may now be in the line of fire. “Where they do have power, they have enormous power,” says Calo.

Taking action

The FTC has not always been willing to wield that power. Following criticism in the 1980s and ’90s that it was being too aggressive, it backed off and picked fewer fights, especially against technology companies. This looks to be changing.

In the blog post, the FTC warns vendors that claims about AI must be “truthful, non-deceptive, and backed up by evidence.”

“For example, let’s say an AI developer tells clients that its product will provide ‘100% unbiased hiring decisions,’ but the algorithm was built with data that lacked racial or gender diversity. The result may be deception, discrimination—and an FTC law enforcement action.”

The FTC action has bipartisan support in the Senate, where commissioners were asked yesterday what more they could be doing and what they needed to do it. “There’s wind behind the sails,” says Calo.

Meanwhile, though they draw a clear line in the sand, the EU’s AI regulations are guidelines only. As with the GDPR rules introduced in 2018, it will be up to individual EU member states to decide how to implement them. Some of the language is also vague and open to interpretation. Take one provision against “subliminal techniques beyond a person’s consciousness in order to materially distort a person’s behaviour” in a way that could cause psychological harm. Does that apply to social media news feeds and targeted advertising? “We can expect many lobbyists to attempt to explicitly exclude advertising or recommender systems,” says Michael Veale, a faculty member at University College London who studies law and technology.

It will take years of legal challenges in the courts to thrash out the details and definitions. “That will only be after an extremely long process of investigation, complaint, fine, appeal, counter-appeal, and referral to the European Court of Justice,” says Veale. “At which point the cycle will start again.” But the FTC, despite its narrow remit, has the autonomy to act now.

One big limitation common to both the FTC and European Commission is the inability to rein in governments’ use of harmful AI tech. The EU’s regulations include carve-outs for state use of surveillance, for example. And the FTC is only authorized to go after companies. It could intervene by stopping private vendors from selling biased software to law enforcement agencies. But implementing this will be hard, given the secrecy around such sales and the lack of rules about what government agencies have to declare when procuring technology.

Yet this week’s announcements reflect an enormous worldwide shift toward serious regulation of AI, a technology that has been developed and deployed with little oversight so far. Ethics watchdogs have been calling for restrictions on unfair and harmful AI practices for years.

The EU sees its regulations bringing AI under existing protections for human liberties. “Artificial intelligence must serve people, and therefore artificial intelligence must always comply with people’s rights,” said Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, in a speech ahead of the release.

Regulation will also help AI with its image problem. As von der Leyen also said: “We want to encourage our citizens to feel confident to use it.” 



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Donald ’67, SM ’69, and Glenda Mattes

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Donald ’67, SM ’69, and Glenda Mattes


Don Mattes started giving to the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT before he himself was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Since his death in 2020, his wife, Glenda, has carried forward Don’s passion for its work. “My wish is that no one ever has to go through the horrors of Alzheimer’s disease ever again,” Glenda says. The Matteses have also supported the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT.

Legacy sparks hope. An early key employee of Andover Controls who later ran the company’s European operations, Don visited six continents with Glenda during their 30-year marriage—often to ski or bicycle. “Don’s was a life well lived, just too short,” Glenda says. The couple made provisions in their estate plan to support the Picower Institute. After Don died, Glenda made a gift to MIT of real estate that established both endowed and current-use funds there to support research on Alzheimer’s, dementia, and other neurodegenerative diseases. Glenda is a cancer survivor, and the gift also endowed a fund in the couple’s name at the Koch Institute.

Great discoveries being made at MIT: “Don always said the best thing he got from MIT was being taught how to think,” Glenda says. “MIT is an amazing place. Picower Institute director Li-Huei Tsai and her team are doing more than looking for a treatment for Alzheimer’s. They’re looking for the root cause of the disease. I am also fascinated with the Koch’s melding of engineering and biology. The chances they are going to solve the cancer issue someday are very high.” 

Help MIT build a better world.
For more information, contact Amy Goldman: (617) 253-4082;  goldmana@mit.edu. Or visit giving.mit.edu/planned-giving.

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Investing in women pays off

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Investing in women pays off


“Starting a business is a privilege,” says Burton O’Toole, who worked at various startups before launching and later selling AdMass, her own marketing technology company. The company gave her access to the HearstLab program in 2016, but she soon discovered that she preferred the investment aspect and became a vice president at HearstLab a year later. “To empower some of the smartest women to do what they love is great,” she says. But in addition to rooting for women, Burton O’Toole loves the work because it’s a great market opportunity. 

“Research shows female-led teams see two and a half times higher returns compared to male-led teams,” she says, adding that women and people of color tend to build more diverse teams and therefore benefit from varied viewpoints and perspectives. She also explains that companies with women on their founding teams are likely to get acquired or go public sooner. “Despite results like this, just 2.3% of venture capital funding goes to teams founded by women. It’s still amazing to me that more investors aren’t taking this data more seriously,” she says. 

Burton O’Toole—who earned a BS from Duke in 2007 before getting an MS and PhD from MIT, all in mechanical engineering—has been a “data nerd” since she can remember. In high school she wanted to become an actuary. “Ten years ago, I never could have imagined this work; I like the idea of doing something in 10 more years I couldn’t imagine now,” she says. 

When starting a business, Burton O’Toole says, “women tend to want all their ducks in a row before they act. They say, ‘I’ll do it when I get this promotion, have enough money, finish this project.’ But there’s only one good way. Make the jump.”

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Preparing for disasters, before it’s too late

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Preparing for disasters, before it’s too late


All too often, the work of developing global disaster and climate resiliency happens when disaster—such as a hurricane, earthquake, or tsunami—has already ravaged entire cities and torn communities apart. But Elizabeth Petheo, MBA ’14, says that recently her work has been focused on preparedness. 

It’s hard to get attention for preparedness efforts, explains Petheo, a principal at Miyamoto International, an engineering and disaster risk reduction consulting firm. “You can always get a lot of attention when there’s a disaster event, but at that point it’s too late,” she adds. 

Petheo leads the firm’s projects and partnerships in the Asia-Pacific region and advises globally on international development and humanitarian assistance. She also works on preparedness in the Asia-Pacific region with the United States Agency for International Development. 

“We’re doing programming on the engagement of the private sector in disaster risk management in Indonesia, which is a very disaster-prone country,” she says. “Smaller and medium-sized businesses are important contributors to job creation and economic development. When they go down, the impact on lives, livelihoods, and the community’s ability to respond and recover effectively is extreme. We work to strengthen their own understanding of their risk and that of their surrounding community, lead them through an action-planning process to build resilience, and link that with larger policy initiatives at the national level.”

Petheo came to MIT with international leadership experience, having managed high-profile global development and risk mitigation initiatives at the World Bank in Washington, DC, as well as with US government agencies and international organizations leading major global humanitarian responses and teams in Sri Lanka and Haiti. But she says her time at Sloan helped her become prepared for this next phase in her career. “Sloan was the experience that put all the pieces together,” she says.

Petheo has maintained strong connections with MIT. In 2018, she received the Margaret L.A. MacVicar ’65, ScD ’67, Award in recognition of her role starting and leading the MIT Sloan Club in Washington, DC, and her work as an inaugural member of the Graduate Alumni Council (GAC). She is also a member of the Friends of the MIT Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center.

“I believe deeply in the power and impact of the Institute’s work and people,” she says. “The moment I graduated, my thought process was, ‘How can I give back, and how can I continue to strengthen the experience of those who will come after me?’”

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