U.S.-Latin America ‘policy lab’ could leverage AI as arena for international collaboration

Rice experts testify at National Artificial Intelligence Advisory Committee hearing

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Rice University experts and collaborators weighed in at a public hearing of the National Artificial Intelligence Advisory Committee (NAIAC) on the risks, opportunities and potential ways to leverage artificial intelligence (AI) as an arena for international collaboration between the U.S. and Latin America.

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The two Rice faculty members on the four-person panel brought to the table a joint profile of expertise in engineering, science, policy and the humanities that is uniquely positioned to serve as a resource for policymakers grappling with the implications of AI on international relations and techno-economic development with countries south of the Texas border.

“Latin America, the Caribbean are home to a set of growing economies that are critical business partners to the United States,” said Rodrigo Ferreira, an assistant teaching professor of computer science and an expert on ethics in computing, data science and AI. “In terms of AI development, this is a space that presents both challenges and opportunities, and it is important that we understand what those are in order to think about how we can best partner across the Americas region.”

Following news of Rice joining the federal consortium on AI safety and of Angela Wilkins, executive director of Rice’s Ken Kennedy Institute, being named to the Texas AI Advisory Council, the hearing underscores the university’s role as a valuable site of reference for cross-cutting questions on AI and governance.

Ferreira’s colleagues at the hearing included César A. Uribe, the Louis Owen Assistant Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Rice; Armando Guio Español, executive director of Harvard University’s Global Network of Internet & Society Centers; and Lucía Trochez Ardila, general manager at the Public Interest Technology (PIT) Policy Lab. Together they provided an overview of AI development in Latin America with a view to potential impacts on bilateral growth and business partnerships between the U.S. and countries in the region.

Ferreira, who is a co-author of the recommendations report on AI ethics included in the 2020 Mexican National AI Agenda and faculty scholar with the Baker Institute for Public Policy, said the hearing was an opportunity to leverage his expertise “not only on AI research but also on governance in Latin America.” Citing ongoing interest in Chinese and European investment in Latin America, Ferreira argued it is in the U.S.’s strategic interest to facilitate bilateral business growth, strengthen AI capabilities and develop cross-regional governance initiatives in the region.

“There’s a lot to think about as it refers to potential partnerships with Latin America,” Ferreira said. “One essential step that could help foster new forms of partnership and strengthen existing ones would be to establish a working group or institutional nexus devoted to the cultivation of bilateral, bicultural and bilingual cooperation and committed to a socially responsible and just deployment and implementation of AI.”

Uribe, who is lead investigator on a grant supporting bilateral cooperation between Rice and Colombia together with Santiago Segarra, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and statistics at Rice, provided an educational perspective on the status of AI in Latin America.

“It is important to understand the differences in cultural nuances that impact the training of skilled personnel in AI in Latin American contexts,” Uribe said, adding that this knowledge “should inform how educational institutions engage with their Latin American peers.”

Uribe, Ferreira and their collaborators argued that in order to capitalize on the opportunities for growth that AI enables in Latin America, countries in the region will require enhanced public policy capabilities and utilization. To this end, the group recommended the establishment of a policy lab tailored to the region that can address its unique needs and provide tools and expertise supporting the development of a safe and effective AI policy infrastructure. This would set the U.S. apart from other countries vying for a foothold in the region and create new opportunities for bilateral engagement.

“There is a clear call-to-action for universities to play a role in shaping these initiatives on AI and public policy,” Uribe said. “Rice University has strategic, competitive, geographic, demographic, economic and social advantages that make us a critical actor in potential bilateral agreements between the U.S. and Latin America. We have great expertise in AI across campus, including at widely recognized nonpartisan public policy think tanks like the Baker Institute. And we have a vast network of national and international collaborators that we can call upon.”