April 13, 2024
Technology

NIST, the lab at the center of Biden’s AI safety push, is decaying


At the National Institute of Standards and Technology — the government lab overseeing the most anticipated technology on the planet — black mold has forced some workers out of their offices. Researchers sleep in their labs to protect their work during frequent blackouts. Some employees have to carry hard drives to other buildings; flaky internet won’t allow for the sending of large files.

And a leaky roof forces others to break out plastic sheeting.

“If we knew rain was coming, we’d tarp up the microscope,” said James Fekete, who served as chief of NIST’s applied chemicals and materials division until 2018. “It leaked enough that we were prepared.”

NIST is at the heart of President Biden’s ambitious plans to oversee a new generation of artificial intelligence models; the agency is tasked with developing tests for security flaws and other harms. But budget constraints have left the 123-year-old lab with a skeletal staff on key tech teams and most facilities on its main Gaithersburg, Md., and Boulder, Colo., campuses below acceptable building standards.

Interviews with more than a dozen current and former NIST employees, Biden administration officials, congressional aides and tech company executives, along with reports commissioned by the government, detail a massive resources gap between NIST and the tech firms it is tasked with evaluating — a discrepancy some say risks undermining the White House’s ambitious plans to set guardrails for the burgeoning technology. Many of the people spoke to The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Even as it races to set up the new U.S. AI Safety Institute, the crisis at the degrading lab is becoming more acute. On Sunday, lawmakers released a new spending plan that would cut NIST’s overall budget by more than 10 percent, to $1.46 billion. While lawmakers propose to invest $10 million in the new AI institute, that’s a fraction of the tens of billions of dollars tech giants like Google and Microsoft are pouring into the race to develop artificial intelligence. It pales in comparison to Britain, which has invested more than $125 million into its AI safety efforts.

The cuts to the agency “are a self-inflicted wound in the global tech race,” said Divyansh Kaushik, the associate director for emerging technologies and national security at the Federation of American Scientists.

Some in the AI community worry that underfunding NIST makes it vulnerable to industry influence. Tech companies are chipping in for the expensive computing infrastructure that will allow the institute to examine AI models. Amazon announced that it would donate $5 million in compute credits. Microsoft, a key investor in OpenAI, will provide engineering teams along with computing resources. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Post.)

Tech executives, including OpenAI CEO Sam Altman, are regularly in communication with officials at the Commerce Department about the agency’s AI work. OpenAI has lobbied NIST on artificial intelligence issues, according to federal disclosures. NIST asked TechNet — an industry trade group whose members include OpenAI, Google and other major tech companies — if its member companies can advise the AI Safety Institute.

NIST is also seeking feedback from academics and civil society groups on its AI work. The agency has a long history of working with a variety of stakeholders to gather input on technologies, Commerce Department spokesman Charlie Andrews said.

AI staff will be working in well-equipped offices in the Gaithersburg campus, the Commerce Department’s D.C. office and the NIST National Cybersecurity Center of Excellence in Rockville, Md, Andrews said.

White House spokeswoman Robyn Patterson said the appointment of Elizabeth Kelly to the helm of the new AI Safety Institute underscores the White House’s “commitment to getting this work done right and on time.” Kelly previously served as special assistant to the president for economic policy.

“The Biden-Harris administration has so far met every single milestone outlined by the president’s landmark executive order,” Patterson said. “We are confident in our ability to continue to effectively and expeditiously meet the milestones and directives set forth by President Biden to protect Americans from the potential risks of AI systems while catalyzing innovation in AI and beyond.”

NIST’s financial struggles highlight the limitations of the administration’s plan to regulate AI exclusively through the executive branch. Without an act of Congress, there is no new funding for initiatives like the AI Safety Institute and the programs could be easily overturned by the next president. And as the presidential elections approach, the prospects of Congress moving on AI in 2024 are growing dim.

Congressional aides and former NIST employees say the agency has not been able to break through as a funding priority — even as lawmakers increasingly tout its role in addressing technological developments, including AI, chips and quantum.

A review of NIST’s safety practices in August found that the budgetary issues endanger employees, alleging the agency has an “incomplete and superficial approach” to safety.

“Chronic underfunding of the NIST facilities and maintenance budget has created unsafe work conditions and further fueled the impression among researchers that safety is not a priority,” said the NIST safety commission report, which was commissioned following the 2022 death of an engineering technician at the agency’s fire research lab.

NIST is one of the federal government’s oldest science agencies — with one of the smallest budgets. Initially called the National Bureau of Standards, it began at the dawn of the 20th century, as Congress realized the need to develop more standardized measurements amid the expansion of electricity, the steam engine and railways.

The need for such an agency was underscored three years after its founding, when fires ravaged through Baltimore. Firefighters from Washington, Philadelphia and even New York rushed to help put out the flames, but without standard couplings, their hoses couldn’t connect to the Baltimore hydrants. The firefighters watched as the flames overtook more than 70 city blocks in 30 hours.

NIST developed a standard fitting, unifying more than 600 different types of hose couplings deployed across the country at the time.

Ever since, the agency has played a critical role in using research and science to help the country learn from catastrophes and prevent new ones. Its work expanded after World War II: It developed an early version of the digital computer, crucial Space Race instruments and atomic clocks, which underpin GPS. In the 1950s and 1960s, the agency moved to new campuses in Boulder and Gaithersburg after its early headquarters in Washington fell into disrepair.

Now, scientists at NIST joke that they work at the most advanced labs in the world — in the 1960s. Former employees describe cutting-edge scientific equipment surrounded by decades-old buildings that make it impossible to control the temperature or humidity to conduct critical experiments.

“You see dust everywhere because the windows don’t seal,” former acting NIST director Kent Rochford said. “You see a bucket catching drips from a leak in the roof. You see Home Depot dehumidifiers or portable AC units all over the place.”

The flooding was so bad that Rochford said he once requested money for scuba gear. That request was denied, but he did receive funding for an emergency kit that included squeegees to clean up water.

Pests and wildlife have at times infiltrated its campuses, including an incident where a garter snake entered a Boulder building.

More than 60 percent of NIST facilities do not meet federal standards for acceptable building conditions, according to a February 2023 report commissioned by Congress from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. The poor conditions impact employee output. Workarounds and do-it-yourself repairs reduce the productivity of research staff by up to 40 percent, according to the committee’s interviews with employees during a laboratory visit.

Years after Rochford’s 2018 departure, NIST employees are still deploying similar MacGyver-style workarounds. Each year between October and March, low humidity in one lab creates a static charge making it impossible to operate an instrument ensuring companies meet environmental standards for greenhouse gases.

Problems with the HVAC and specialized lights have made the agency unable to meet demand for reference materials, which manufacturers use to check whether their measurements are accurate in products like baby formula.

Facility problems have also delayed critical work on biometrics, including evaluations of facial recognition systems used by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies. The data center in the 1966 building that houses that work receives inadequate cooling, and employees there spend about 30 percent of their time trying to mitigate problems with the lab, according to the academies’ reports. Scheduled outages are required to maintain the data centers that hold technology work, knocking all biometric evaluations offline for a month each year.

Fekete, the scientist who recalled covering the microscope, said his team’s device never completely stopped working due to rain water.

But other NIST employees haven’t been so lucky. Leaks and floods destroyed an electron microscope worth $2.5 million used for semiconductor research, and permanently damaged an advanced scale called a Kibble balance. The tool was out of commission for nearly five years.

Despite these constraints, NIST has built a reputation as a natural interrogator of swiftly advancing AI systems.

In 2019, the agency released a landmark study confirming facial recognition systems misidentify people of color more often than White people, casting scrutiny on the technology’s popularity among law enforcement. Due to personnel constraints, only a handful of people worked on that project.

Four years later, NIST released early guidelines around AI, cementing its reputation as a government leader on the technology. To develop the framework, the agency connected with leaders in industry, civil society and other groups, earning a strong reputation among numerous parties as lawmakers began to grapple with the swiftly evolving technology.

The work made NIST a natural home for the Biden administration’s AI red-teaming efforts and the AI Safety Institute, which were formalized in the November executive order. Vice President Harris touted the institute at the U.K. AI Safety Summit in November. More than 200 civil society organizations, academics and companies — including OpenAI and Google — have signed on to participate in a consortium within the institute.

OpenAI spokeswoman Kayla Wood said in a statement that the company supports NIST’s work, and that the company plans to continue to work with the lab to “support the development of effective AI oversight measures.”

Under the executive order, NIST has a laundry list of initiatives that it needs to complete by this summer, including publishing guidelines for how to red-team AI models and launching an initiative to guide evaluating AI capabilities. In a December speech at the machine learning conference NeurIPS, the agency’s chief AI adviser, Elham Tabassi, said this would be an “almost impossible deadline.”

“It is a hard problem,” said Tabassi, who was recently named the chief technology officer of the AI Safety Institute. “We don’t know quite how to evaluate AI.”

The NIST staff has worked “tirelessly” to complete the work it is assigned by the AI executive order, said Andrews, the Commerce spokesperson.

“While the administration has been clear that additional resources will be required to fully address all of the issues posed by AI in the long term, NIST has been effectively carrying out its responsibilities under the [executive order] and is prepared to continue to lead on AI-related research and other work,” he said.

Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo asked Congress to allocate $10 million for the AI Safety Institute during an event at the Atlantic Council in January. The Biden administration also requested more funding for NIST facilities, including $262 million for safety, maintenance and repairs. Congressional appropriators responded by cutting NIST’s facilities budget.

The administration’s ask falls far below the recommendations of the national academies’ study, which urged Congress to provide $300 to $400 million in additional annual funding over 12 years to overcome a backlog of facilities damage. The report also calls for $120 million to $150 million per year for the same period to “stabilize the effects of further deterioration and obsolescence.”

Ross B. Corotis, who chaired the academies committee that produced the facilities report, said Congress needs to ensure that NIST is funded because it is the “go-to lab” when any new technology emerges, whether that’s chips or AI.

“Unless you’re going to build a whole new laboratory for some particular issue, you’re going to turn first to NIST,” Corotis said. “And NIST needs to be ready for that.”

Eva Dou and Nitasha Tiku contributed to this report.



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