Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) Director Jen Easterly warned on Thursday that the United States needs to quickly determine the regulatory landscape for development of AI technologies, which she said have the potential to become the most consequential – and perhaps dangerous – technologies of the 21st century.

During a panel discussion hosted by the Atlantic Council, Easterly laid out in stark terms what’s at stake for the U.S. and the world if AI and other technologies are allowed to proliferate without the benefit of government guardrails.

Fielding a question on whether existing legal authorities are sufficient to guide rapid advancements in AI tech as it might apply to critical infrastructure protection and other areas, Easterly offered a rundown of internet-era tech development, and said policymakers need to act fast to get out in front of the AI development.

“This is a piece of the technology conversation that we’re having … you go back to the original sin of the wonderful internet,” she said. “It was not created with security in mind.”

“Then we went to software and the incentives were not about security or safety, and so we created a multibillion-dollar cybersecurity industry to bolt on, create greater complexity to try and deal with unsafe technology,” she said. “Then we had social media moving fast and breaking things and we’re breaking the mental health of our kids.”

“And then we are at AI,” Easterly continued.

“We are hurtling forward in a way that I think is not the right level of responsibility, implementing AI capabilities in production, without any legal barriers, without any regulation,” she said.

“Frankly, I’m not sure that we are thinking about the downstream safety consequences of how fast this is moving and how bad people like terrorists – I used to be the head of counterterrorism at the White House – or cyber criminals or adversary nation-states can use some of these capabilities not for the amazing things that they can do but for really bad things that can happen – weaponization of cyber, a weaponization of genetic engineering, weaponization of biotech,” she said.

“I have been trying hard to think about how we can implement certain controls around how this technology starts to proliferate in a very accelerated way,” Easterly said.

“I think this is the biggest issue that we’re going to deal with this century,” she said.

“The most powerful weapons of the last century were nuclear weapons,” Easterly said. “They were controlled by governments and there was no incentive to use them. It was a disincentive to use them.”

“These are the most powerful technology capabilities and maybe weapons in this century,” she said. “And we do not have the legal regimes … or the regulatory regimes to be able to implement them safely and effectively,” she said. “We need to figure that out in the very near term.”

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John Curran
John Curran
John Curran is MeriTalk's Managing Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.