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Congress' Physicist: House AI Task Force Chair Rep. Bill Foster

Jan 8, 2020
In The News

We have the perfect show to kick off the new year and new decade in 2020. This is one of the most interesting conversations we’ve ever had, in our hundred-plus episodes of Barefoot Innovation.

My very special guest is Congressman Bill Foster, who represents the 11th District of Illinois. He is a member of the House of Representatives Committee on Financial Services, and was appointed by Committee Chair Maxine Waters to lead the special task force she set up to examine how artificial intelligence will transform finance.

And, maybe better yet, he is Congress’ one and only PhD physicist (you’ll enjoy hearing his list of credentials). As he explains in today’s show, he went from working on theatrical stage lighting, to high energy particle physics, to politics -- in our talk, he shares the inspiring family story of what prompted him to enter public service.

Part of our conversation covered the issues being explored by the Task Force. As he notes, banks today realize they have five or ten years to turn themselves into tech firms, and the tech firms meanwhile will be coming into finance, and the technology is going to transform everything, for everyone. Congress and the regulators will have their hands full, keeping up.

One example is in digital identity, where bad actors are taking AI to a new level for hacking, using phishing messages that mimic the actual voice of someone in the target’s own company. We discussed the fact that criminal capabilities are only going to get stronger, and what can be done about it. 

He is fascinating in talking about algorithmic bias. Should we allow consideration of customers’ behaviors in evaluating them for loans? How should we handle the dilemma that there will inevitably be situations where adopting AI would benefit everyone, but would benefit some people more than others? I suspect the Congressman is one of the few people in that policy discussion who can talk about whether the Gram-Schmidt Process could solve this, and how hard it is to apply.

We talked about whether policymakers could issue a set of AI standards, preferably as an open source tool, and require AI programmers to satisfy it -- and how to prevent people from gaming that approach.

We talked about the fact that AI needs access to huge data sets, which can give a strategic advantage to countries like China over countries with stringent privacy laws.

We discussed many other things -- American competitiveness, community banks, growing societal fear of technology, how to offset adverse impacts on jobs and on wealth concentration, and much more. 

Congressman Foster also co-chairs the bipartisan National Laboratories Caucus, which means he spends a lot of his time exposing members of congress to science. He estimates that half of American economic growth since the 1950s grew out of technology developed through federally-funded research.

I love talking with people who “cross the lines” -- who transcend the silos and straddle multiple realms of knowledge. Congressman Bill Foster, the scientist politician, is one of the most thoughtful and thought-provoking guests we’ve ever had on the show. I know you’ll enjoy our conversation.