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Home » How to Govern AI — Even If It’s Hard to Predict: Helen Toner (Transcript)

How to Govern AI — Even If It’s Hard to Predict: Helen Toner (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of AI policy researcher Helen Toner’s talk titled “How to Govern AI — Even If It’s Hard to Predict” at TED 2024 conference.

Listen to the audio version here:


When I talk to people about artificial intelligence, something I hear a lot from non-experts is “I don’t understand AI.” But when I talk to experts, a funny thing happens. They say, “I don’t understand AI, and neither does anyone else.” This is a pretty strange state of affairs.

Normally, the people building a new technology understand how it works inside and out. But for AI, a technology that’s radically reshaping the world around us, that’s not so. Experts do know plenty about how to build and run AI systems, of course. But when it comes to how they work on the inside, there are serious limits to how much we know.

And this matters because without deeply understanding AI, it’s really difficult for us to know what it will be able to do next, or even what it can do now. And the fact that we have such a hard time understanding what’s going on with the technology and predicting where it will go next, is one of the biggest hurdles we face in figuring out how to govern AI. But AI is already all around us, so we can’t just sit around and wait for things to become clearer. We have to forge some kind of path forward anyway.

I’ve been working on these AI policy and governance issues for about eight years, first in San Francisco, now in Washington, DC. Along the way, I’ve gotten an inside look at how governments are working to manage this technology. And inside the industry, I’ve seen a thing or two as well. So I’m going to share a couple of ideas for what our path to governing AI could look like.

Challenges in Understanding AI

But first, let’s talk about what actually makes AI so hard to understand and predict. One huge challenge in building artificial “intelligence” is that no one can agree on what it actually means to be intelligent. This is a strange place to be in when building a new tech. When the Wright brothers started experimenting with planes, they didn’t know how to build one, but everyone knew what it meant to fly.

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