Q&A With Terah Lyons, Former White House Policy Advisor on AI

The Trump administration should involve more engineers in policymaking, she says

9 May 2017

One of IEEE’s newest members is Terah Lyons, a former policy advisor for the Obama administration’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, who joined IEEE in March. Lyons began working at the OSTP in 2015—and last year worked for Megan Smith, chief U.S. technology officer.  

Congress established the OSTP in 1976 with a broad mandate to advise the president and others within the Executive Office of the President on the effects of science and technology on domestic and international affairs. The mission is to provide the president and his senior staff with accurate, relevant, and timely scientific and technical advice to ensure that the policies of the executive branch are informed by sound science. It also aims to make sure the branch’s scientific and technical work is properly coordinated to provide the greatest societal benefit.

Lyons has a bachelor’s degree from Harvard in computational sociology with a focus in network theory. She drafted policies on emerging technologies such as machine intelligence, automated vehicles, and civil and commercial drones. Before that, she worked in the Office of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs and served as a research analyst for presidential advisor David Gergen.

At the OSTP, Lyons helped draft the “Artificial Intelligence, Automation, and the Economy” report, published in December by the Executive Office of the President. The report investigates the effects of AI-driven automation on the U.S. job market and economy, and outlines possible policy responses.

Lyons’ work with the transition between administrations ended in mid-March. She’s now looking for a job in technology governance, she says, hopefully in a position that involves AI issues.

The IEEE TechEthics program has discussed with her how best to incorporate AI and other new technologies that impact society into a code of ethics. IEEE TechEthics’ goal is to establish IEEE as a thought leader in the ethical and societal implications of technology.

The Institute asked Lyons about her days at the OSTP, what role engineers should play in policymaking, and whether she thought the Trump administration would continue working on AI policies.

How did you end up working for the Obama administration?

It was a long and winding path. I always knew I wanted to work in the public sector. Friends in the administration told me about OSTP just before I left to work in Cape Town, South Africa, on a drone-based research project for Harvard. I flew to Washington, D.C., to interview for a job in the office and ended up staying for a few years.

What were some of the issues you worked on?

The focus of my policy portfolio was machine intelligence. In the last year of the administration, we established the White House Future of Artificial Intelligence Initiative, which sought to clarify what the U.S. federal government’s view of AI and role in AI-related policymaking should be. We organized a nationally scaled public outreach campaign that included five public workshops held in cities across the country, and hosted cross-sector conversations with experts from academia, industry, and the public—as well as with countries and global governance bodies.

We formed an interagency working group to coordinate the government’s activity on AI and machine learning, and to learn more about the benefits and risks of the technology. We also published several public reports. “Preparing for the Future of Artificial Intelligence” surveys the current state of AI and its potential applications, and the questions the technology raises for society and public policy. We developed a National Artificial Intelligence Research and Development Strategic Plan for federally funded R&D.

I also did a lot of work on robotics regulation. The Obama administration was focused on civil and commercial drones and automated vehicles. We enacted the Federal Aviation Administration’s Part 107—the small unmanned aircraft systems rule, which for the first time allows for operation of civil and commercial drones in U.S. airspace. We also developed the Department of Transportation’s Federal Automated Vehicles Policy—a first-of-its-kind regulatory framework that provides best practices to guide manufacturers in the safe design, testing, and deployment of autonomous vehicles.

What opportunities does AI present?

I’m optimistic about the potential AI and machine learning will have on improving people’s lives by helping to solve some of the world’s greatest challenges. Advancements in almost every sector caused by AI will likely equal—if not supersede—the transformative impact of other historically revolutionary technologies, like the steam engine and mobile computing technology. Investments in basic and applied R&D have already begun reaping major benefits in health care, transportation, the environment, and economic inclusion. And the effectiveness of government itself will continue to increase as agencies build their capacity to use AI to carry out their missions more quickly, responsively, and efficiently.

Should engineers play a role in policymaking?

In the same way that people have IQ and emotional intelligence, at OSTP we used to say that some people with technical or tech-policy faculties have TQ: tech quotient—a set of sensibilities and technical competencies critical to making policy decisions about the modern world. We’ve reached a point where science and technology are part of every conversation being had in the halls of government.

No longer can we limit ourselves to “the usual suspects”—lawyers and economists—in crafting public policy. We also need technologists. Right now there’s an astounding lack of technical expertise in government, especially at the highest levels where significant decisions are being made. Engineers must move up from the basement and onto the floor of Congress and into the halls of the West Wing to prepare our top leaders to tackle today’s challenges and to build the future.

Why should professional codes of ethics be updated to include AI?

Professional codes of ethics are important and timely, but a lot of them don’t reflect the social and economic complexities posed by today’s technology landscape—especially when it comes to the specific challenges engendered by machine intelligence and related issues. Collective reflection, especially right now, is critical. And it’s a conversation that must include diversity of voices—from different academic and personal backgrounds, communities, sectors, and values. It’s important to have organizations like IEEE at the center of these conversations.

Do you think the present administration will concern itself with AI?

It’s clear to me, based on what has been publicly voiced by this administration, that science and technology policy issues are not priorities for this president. The positions of director of the OSTP and CTO are yet to be filled, and a worrisome lack of technical expertise has been hired to staff the White House.

But I do hope the Trump administration will make AI a priority. This technology area has already had tremendous impact on the world. Smart policy responses will be required if we want to ensure that we’re adequately addressing the challenges and risks associated with AI.

This article is part of our May 2017 special issue on ethics in engineering.

IEEE membership offers a wide range of benefits and opportunities for those who share a common interest in technology. If you are not already a member, consider joining IEEE and becoming part of a worldwide network of more than 400,000 students and professionals.

Learn More