Maryland Looks to Harness AI for Government Use with Executive Order

Matt McClain/The Washington Post
Maryland Gov. Wes Moore (D) at the Maryland State House in February 2023 in Annapolis.

Maryland Gov. Wes Moore (D) signed an executive order calling for the state to develop guardrails to protect residents from the risk of bias and discrimination as artificial intelligence becomes increasingly useful and common, though the order did not specify how the government intends to use AI in the future.

The order acknowledged the potential for AI to be a “tremendous force for good” if developed and deployed responsibly. But the order also called out the risk that the technology could perpetuate harmful biases, invade citizens’ privacy, and expose sensitive data when used inappropriately or carelessly.

“It is not lost on me that, for many people in our state, the words ‘AI’ and ‘cyber’ can make some people scared,” Moore said at a news conference. “Here’s the thing: This technology is already here. The only question is whether we are going to be reactive or proactive in this moment.”

Maryland joins a bevy of states expected to enact new rules for AI in 2024, even as federal lawmakers have said they are inclined to use a light touch in regulating the industry. According to a report published in December by the Center on Technology Policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, at least 15 states passed new laws related to AI tools in 2023, mostly aimed at getting lawmakers up to speed on the concerns emerging as the technology expands. Already, states such as Minnesota, Michigan and Washington have passed laws barring the use of generative AI and “deep fakes” in political ads. Several others have directed state officials to study the issue and consider further changes this year.

Moore’s executive order establishes an AI subcabinet to ensure that state agencies follow a set of principles guiding the ethical and productive use of AI technologies. The subcabinet will also be tasked with identifying opportunities AI could offer to recruit or expand businesses, providing a needed jolt to the state’s sluggish economy. Maryland officials on Monday additionally announced plans to modernize the state’s digital infrastructure, expand access to online resources and combat cybersecurity threats.

State lawmakers, set to convene Wednesday for a 90-day marathon of policymaking, also plan to focus on generative AI and what role government should have in regulating it. Legislators say they are worried about everything from job loss to children’s online safety and plan to debate what to do about the technology, even if they don’t have any answers yet.

Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) said in an interview that he believes the General Assembly will fortify pieces of Moore’s executive order by enacting them into state law and will then go further.

“We’re going to look toward protections for consumers so that Maryland is a place where residents feel comfortable using those new technologies because there’s the right protections in place,” he said.

Del. Joseline A. Peña-Melnyk (D-Prince George’s), one of the lawmakers Moore thanked for their support on AI-related issues, told The Washington Post in an interview that the state needs to implement guardrails as it embraces new uses for the technology.

“It’s good, but it also has biases and can be abused,” she said. “We have to address it.”

Other lawmakers want to spend their 90 days together fact-finding to glean the best policies on AI to introduce later.

“I think it’s very dangerous to regulate something you don’t really understand. I think a lot of people under- and overestimate what AI is, what it is capable of,” said House Economic Matters Committee Chair C.T. Wilson (D-Charles).

Although one common fear of AI involves a doomsday scenario in which computers lash out against humanity, many experts, ethicists and government officials are more concerned with the risk of civil rights abuses, discrimination and bias that can be built into AI tools – even unintentionally.

Moore’s order spelled out several guiding principles to keep AI from running amok in Maryland. Those principles include fairness and equity; innovation; privacy; safety, security and resiliency; validity and reliability; and transparency, accountability and explainability. The subcabinet will include the secretaries of information technology, budget and management, general services, labor, and commerce, as well as several other state officials who will provide guidance on the use of data, privacy and cybersecurity.

In addition to the executive order, Secretary of Information Technology Katie Savage announced plans to modernize the state government’s digital systems and expand critical infrastructure to prepare for AI and other new technologies.

The newly formed Maryland Digital Service will help coordinate new technology-related initiatives across all state agencies, Savage said, bringing the talent needed to develop a modern digital infrastructure using existing funds.

Among the group’s projects will be ensuring that Marylanders with disabilities can access state websites and online resources. Those efforts will include ensuring all of the state’s websites adhere to nonvisual compliance, so that residents with visual impairments can use the sites. The team will also work to increase translated resources for residents who do not speak English, Savage said.

The secretary also announced the creation of a Maryland Cybersecurity Task Force, which will be a partnership among the state’s information technology, emergency management and military departments. That task force is charged with responding to security incidents, developing systemwide approaches to preventing attacks and providing support for local governments as they modernize their security systems.

“The goal is to foster a whole-of-government approach to further enhance the state’s cybersecurity capabilities and better support local governments in need of cybersecurity maturity,” Savage said.

Some past cybersecurity breaches have profoundly interrupted government work. A December 2021 malware attack on the Maryland Department of Health upended public health services in the midst of a particularly brutal coronavirus surge.

Moore said the changes announced Monday will bring Maryland up to date with modern advances after years of neglecting to improve the state’s digital infrastructure.

“My iPhone asks me to update it like every eight weeks, but we have not updated the way the government works in the past eight years,” Moore said. “We cannot afford to be stuck with a system that is 10 years out of date.”