Charting a New Course: Democratic Leadership in AGI Development

Alex Leader / Dec 19, 2023

As the pursuit of Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) advances rapidly, recent events at OpenAI signal a critical juncture in the history of technology and governance. The internal strife and lack of transparency at OpenAI underscore the inherent risks of entrusting AGI's development to private entities, whether they are established tech giants or dynamic startups. Such a pivotal technology, akin to the atomic bomb, demands transparent, accountable, and democratically elected governance, a sentiment echoed by advocates of public sector innovation.

OpenAI's boardroom conflicts offer a compelling case study in the pitfalls of private actors spearheading the development of AGI. The discord in the company, characterized by conflicts of interest, power struggles, and a lack of transparency, exemplifies the inherent risks associated with entrusting such a consequential technology only to private entities. It underscores the necessity for AGI, a technology with far-reaching implications, to be governed by structures that prioritize transparent, accountable, and democratically aligned principles, ensuring that it is developed and deployed in a manner that safeguards the public interest and global stability.

In an environment where the objectives are often driven by corporate interests, personal ambitions, or shareholder profits, the pursuit of AGI will fail to account for broader societal and ethical considerations. AGI has the potential to revolutionize various sectors, from healthcare with early disease detection and personalized treatment plans, to climate change mitigation through intelligent energy systems and sustainable infrastructure. AGI could also play a vital role in national security, enhancing defense capabilities while ensuring ethical deployment. Economically, AGI could drive unprecedented growth, create new industries, and reshape existing ones.

However, there are significant risks, including job displacement and the exacerbation of social inequalities. AGI also presents unique technological challenges and ethical dilemmas, given its hypothetical ability to perform nearly any intellectual task that a human can do. These include decision-making processes that could surpass human understanding and control, raising ethical concerns around autonomy, privacy, and the potential misuse of technology. The inherent unpredictability of AGI's decision-making algorithms necessitates a governance model rooted in ethical oversight and moral responsibility, where democratic leadership has a crucial role.

While some have advocated for the establishment of an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)-style body to regulate AI development within the private sector, a paradigm shift is in order: advocating not merely for public or multilateral sector regulation of AI, but for the direct involvement and leadership of democratic governments in the actual development of AGI. The approach seeks to transcend traditional regulatory frameworks, positioning governments not just as overseers, but as drivers in the creation and advancement of AGI technology.

To imagine how democratic governments could lead AGI development, we can draw inspiration from historic models such as the Manhattan Project, the Apollo Program, and ARPANET. These models offer a multifaceted approach, combining intense focus, public engagement, and decentralized innovation to effectively guide AGI development for the public good while addressing ethical, security, and societal implications.

The Manhattan Project model: Centralized intensity and ethical oversight

The Manhattan Project, known for its intense focus and rapid development in creating the atomic bomb, provides valuable lessons for AGI development. This approach suggests assembling a select group of AI experts and dedicating significant resources and facilities to AGI research, especially in scenarios that require staying ahead of potential risks from entities like authoritarian regimes or unregulated corporations. Unlike the secrecy of the Manhattan Project, AGI development demands transparent and ethical oversight to ensure alignment with democratic values and public interest. The model underscores the necessity of a centralized command structure for swift, decisive action while balancing the need for confidentiality with ethical accountability and broader societal values.

This centralized approach could be crucial in moments where rapid advancements in AGI are necessary to maintain a competitive edge or to respond to urgent global challenges. It would especially suit scenarios requiring rapid advancement to stay ahead of potential risks posed by other entities, such as authoritarian regimes or unregulated corporations. However, this approach also carries the risk of being disconnected from the broader societal context, which calls for mechanisms that ensure the alignment of AGI development with broader human values and concerns. It necessitates strict ethical oversight and transparency to align with democratic values and public interest, balancing the need for confidentiality with accountability.

The Apollo Program model: Visionary public engagement

The Apollo Program's legacy, marked by its public engagement and inspiring goals, presents a complementary approach. This model envisions AGI development as a mission that captures the public imagination, similar to landing on the moon. It advocates for collaboration among government, academia, and industry, underpinned by public support and education. It’s an approach that ensures not only technological success but also social acceptance of AGI, potentially aligning its development with public values. It involves extensive public communication and education, framing AGI as a collective, transparent effort, and setting visionary goals that resonate with societal challenges such as climate change, healthcare, or inequality.

Here, the development of AGI would involve clear, inspiring objectives that resonate with the public, emphasizing the societal benefits of AGI. Its development would be viewed as a collective, transparent effort rather than a secretive government project. In the context of AGI, such a vision could be centered around solving some of humanity's most pressing problems, like climate change, disease, or inequality. This approach requires building public awareness and support, creating educational programs to inform the public about AGI's potential and risks, and fostering a culture of innovation and openness.

The ARPANET model: Open, decentralized innovation

The ARPANET approach, with its decentralized innovation and open standards, offers a third, vital pathway. It suggests creating a network of research institutions to contribute to AGI from diverse perspectives, promoting an ecosystem of innovation and experimentation. This model champions collaborative, networked innovation, where various nodes contribute uniquely to AGI development. It emphasizes openness, transparency, and cross-border collaboration, ensuring that AGI's benefits are widely accessible and distributed to a broad spectrum of users and communities. In such a scenario, AGI development is not monopolized and, instead, embraces principles of openness.

This model champions the idea of collaborative, networked innovation, where different nodes – be they research institutions, companies, or individual researchers – contribute to the development of AGI from their unique perspectives. It promotes an ecosystem approach, where innovation is not only the product of a single central entity but emerges from the interactions within a diverse and dynamic network. This model also suggests that openness and transparency in research can accelerate innovation, as researchers and institutions can build upon each other's work, fostering a cumulative approach to knowledge and technology development.

Integrating the approaches

An effective government-led AGI strategy would integrate elements from all three models. It would combine the Manhattan Project's focused intensity with the Apollo Program's public engagement and ARPANET's open, decentralized innovation. The integrated approach would balance priorities such as security, public transparency, and innovation. It also necessitates robust legal and ethical frameworks, guiding AGI development to serve the public good while mitigating risks.

To implement such an integrated strategy, the following policy actions are necessary:

A National AGI Development Agency

Taking inspiration from monumental historical projects like the Manhattan Project and the Apollo Program, the establishment of a National AGI Development Agency (NAGIDA) is a vital first step. The agency, envisioned to spearhead the United States' efforts in AGI, NAGIDA's mission would encompass the development of AGI and ensure its alignment with democratic values and public interests. The agency would draw on the nation's vast resources and expertise, combining the innovative spirit of the private sector with the strategic oversight of the government. It would work towards setting ambitious yet achievable objectives, focusing on areas where AGI could significantly contribute to the public good, such as healthcare, environmental sustainability, and national security. Moreover, NAGIDA would serve as a hub for collaboration, bringing together the best minds from academia, industry, and government to work on this pivotal technology.

The AGI Development Act

The complexity of AGI development necessitates a robust legal and regulatory framework that balances innovation with responsibility. The AGI Development Act (AGIDA) would serve this purpose, laying down the ethical, safety, and regulatory standards for AGI research and application. The act would address the immediate concerns of development and deployment and consider the long-term implications of AGI on society. Ethical guidelines within AGIDA would emphasize the responsible use of AGI, prioritizing human rights, privacy, and transparency. The act would also facilitate public-private partnerships, leveraging the agility and innovation of the tech sector while ensuring ethical compliance and public oversight.

An International Coalition for AGI Governance

Given the global implications of AGI, no single nation can or should have a monopoly on its development and governance. An International Coalition for AGI Governance (ICAGG) would bring together democratic nations to establish global standards, share research and resources, and create a framework for responsible and ethical AGI development. The coalition would be crucial in preventing a 'race to the bottom' scenario where nations compete at the cost of ethical considerations and safety.

ICAGG's role would extend beyond mere regulation; it would actively participate in setting the research agenda, prioritizing projects with global benefits, and mediating in cases of international disputes over AGI technology. The coalition would also serve as a platform for dialogue between nations, tech companies, academia, and civil societies, ensuring that a diverse range of perspectives is considered in the governance of AGI.

The formation of an International Coalition for AGI Governance (ICAGG) is vital for establishing global standards and fostering international collaboration. However, this comes with challenges, including reconciling differing ethical standards and bridging technological disparities between countries. Effective global governance of AGI requires harmonizing diverse perspectives on AI ethics and ensuring equitable access to technology, avoiding a digital divide that could exacerbate global inequalities.

The pillars of public sector led AGI development

Implementing the proposed strategy involves significant challenges. Establishing a National AGI Development Agency (NAGIDA) and enacting the AGI Development Act (AGIDA) requires political will, inter-agency coordination, and substantial funding. Forming the ICAGG entails diplomatic negotiations and consensus-building among nations with diverse interests. These challenges demand a concerted effort from all stakeholders, including governments, the private sector, and civil society. The success of NAGIDA and the objectives laid out in AGIDA hinges on three critical pillars: funding, talent, and infrastructure.

Funding: The financial requirements for AGI development are substantial, but so are the potential returns. One possible funding mechanism could be a special tax levied on tech companies that benefit from data-driven technologies. The tax would not only provide a steady stream of revenue for AGI research but also ensure that the tech giants contribute their fair share to a project that ultimately benefits society at large.

Talent: The race for AGI is also a race for talent. The United States needs to reform its STEM education system to foster domestic talent while also attracting the brightest minds globally. NAGIDA would play a pivotal role in this, offering scholarships, research grants, and an environment where the best minds in AI can thrive.

Infrastructure: Building AGI requires immense computing power and vast amounts of data. Investing in robust digital infrastructure, including cloud resources and enhanced computing facilities, is essential. It also involves building a resilient supply chain for critical components like microelectronics and reducing dependency on foreign sources.

Government as the innovator of first resort

The recent events at OpenAI serve as a wake-up call, urging governments to assume a leading role in AGI innovation. By adopting a comprehensive strategy that draws from historical government-led projects, democratic nations can responsibly guide AGI development. It is an approach that seeks to transcend mere technological dominance; securing a future where AGI not only enhances and safeguards democratic societies but also addresses humanity's most pressing challenges. It also includes prioritizing projects that address pressing global challenges, ensuring equitable access to AGI technologies, and continually engaging with the public to maintain trust and transparency.

Governments, academia, industry, and civil society must collaboratively chart this new course, committing to a future where AGI is developed with vision, collaboration, and an unwavering commitment to democratic values. Governing AGI’s development is not just a technological endeavor; it's a societal imperative, representing a true moonshot for humanity in the 21st century.


Alex Leader
Alex Leader is a consultant specializing in strategy and innovation, currently advising a diverse range of organizations across non-profit, for-profit, and public sectors. His experience orchestrating federal initiatives in technology adoption and scientific discovery has been pivotal in advancing p...