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Shaping the Future: Arati Prabhakar’s AI Vision for America and Her Historic Meeting with President Biden



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Written by Steven Levy

Introducing the Woman Behind President Biden's Introduction to ChatGPT, Influencing the Direction of AI

In March 2023, Arati Prabhakar presented a laptop to Joe Biden in the Oval Office, offering him a glimpse into the future. This moment led to the president signing an extensive executive order six months later, establishing a framework for AI regulation.

The world was left in awe due to the remarkable impact of ChatGPT. Suddenly, it became crystal clear that the United States had to accelerate its regulatory measures for the AI sector while also implementing strategies to capitalize on its benefits. The possibilities appeared boundless, from transforming Social Security customer service for the better to facing the risk of widespread misinformation or, as some believe, the threat of human annihilation. It was imperative that this reality be presented to the president.

Prabhakar was assigned the responsibility due to her role as the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, where she not only enjoys cabinet status but also serves as the chief adviser on science and technology to the president. She had been diligently briefing senior officials on the revolutionary potential of AI. Furthermore, her wealth of experience and adeptness in navigating bureaucratic intricacies position her to significantly influence the world's most influential leader.

Originally hailing from India before growing up in Texas, Prabhakar holds a Doctorate in Applied Physics from Caltech. Her career includes leadership roles at two prominent US institutions: the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Defense Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency. With 15 years of experience in Silicon Valley, she worked as a venture capitalist and held significant positions such as president at Paul Allen's renowned tech incubator, Interval Research. Additionally, she has fulfilled roles as vice president or chief technology officer at multiple firms.

Prabhakar took on her present role in October 2022, right at a moment when AI became a central focus. She played a key role in releasing a comprehensive 20,000-word executive order aimed at setting safety protocols, fostering innovation, integrating AI into governmental and educational sectors, and addressing potential employment impacts. She succeeded Eric Lander, a biologist who stepped down following findings from an inquiry that determined he presided over a harmful work environment. Prabhakar marks the first woman and first individual of color to hold the position of director for the office.

Our discussion took place at Prabhakar's modestly furnished condo in Silicon Valley, quite a contrast to the eerie and formidable atmosphere of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in DC where the OSTP offices are located, if my memory serves me right. Fortunately, the relaxed California atmosphere dominated, making our conversation feel casual and comfortable. We delved into topics such as Bruce Springsteen's involvement in Biden's inaugural ChatGPT demonstration, her aspirations for a revival in the U.S. semiconductor industry, and what sets Biden's approach to combating cancer apart from previous presidential efforts. Additionally, I inquired about the vacant position of the nation's chief technology officer—a role envisioned for a somewhat nerdy individual tasked with navigating the technological challenges of the 21st century.

Steven Levy: What motivated you to take on this role?

Arati Prabhakar: The reason is President Biden's request. He views science and technology as tools that empower us to achieve great feats, aligning perfectly with my perspective on their role.

What types of large items?

The goal of OSTP is to enhance the whole science and technology landscape. Our approach is guided by specific objectives. A significant portion of our research and development budget is allocated to healthcare. However, the majority of both government and private sector investments are concentrated on pharmaceuticals and medical devices, with minimal attention to preventative measures or improvements in clinical care methods—areas that have the potential to transform health rather than merely addressing illness. Additionally, we are faced with the urgent need to address the climate emergency. In the realm of clean energy technologies, we struggle to effectively transition innovations from the research phase to tangible benefits for the American people. This represents an area of critical work that remains incomplete for our nation.

Ashworth Boone

Lauren Goode

Emma Johnson

Timothy Barber

It seems like fate that you'd end up in this position. Right after earning your physics degree from Caltech, you made your way to DC and became deeply involved in policy work.

Certainly, I deviated from the path that was expected of me. My parents moved to the United States from India when I was just three years old. Growing up, my mother would often begin conversations with the expectation that I would one day earn a PhD and pursue an academic career — and she was entirely serious about it. Caltech, where I completed my degree in 1984, epitomized the quintessential academic stronghold, revered for its scientific sanctity. There, I gained invaluable knowledge; however, I discovered that my true passion wasn't found in the solitary hours of the early morning, toiling in a laboratory, waiting for a moment of groundbreaking insight. Rather impulsively, I decided to move to Washington for what I initially thought would be a single year, to partake in a congressional fellowship. However, everything changed in 1986 when I joined Darpa as a fledgling program manager. At Darpa, the objective was to leverage science and technology to forge a new future. It was there that I truly felt I belonged.

In 2022, Arati Prabhakar assumed the role of director at the OSTP.

What led you to join Darpa?

I authored a research paper on the development and research in microelectronics. At that time, we were beginning to understand that the semiconductor sector might not always remain under US leadership. Our work involved numerous unsuccessful experiments, yet it also established the basis for future successful innovations. I spent seven years there, took a 19-year hiatus, and then returned in the role of director. Two decades on, the range of projects had significantly evolved, which was expected. I had the honor of launching the inaugural autonomous ship capable of departing a harbor and traversing the open sea without any crew members. Another quintessential task at Darpa was to identify potential foundational elements for new technologies. This led me to initiate a Biological Technologies Office. Among its various achievements was the swift creation and dissemination of mRNA vaccines, an endeavor that would not have been possible without Darpa's funding.


Lauren Goode


Tim Barber

Today, a notable change is that major technology companies are heavily investing in research and development on their own, although their focus might not always be on the groundbreaking innovations that Darpa was initially created to pursue.

In every advanced economic system, a common trend is observed. Initially, there is governmental funding directed towards research and development (R&D). This step is crucial for sparking the creation of new sectors and propelling economic growth. As these sectors expand, their contribution to R&D increases, eventually surpassing public investment. There used to be a period when the investment was equally split between the public and private sectors. However, today, private sector investment significantly outweighs public funding. For Darpa, specifically, the goal is to achieve revolutionary technological advancements and competencies critical for national defense.

Does that change concern you?

This isn't about rivalry! Indeed, there has been a significant change. The fact that private technology firms are at the forefront of developing cutting-edge Large Language Models (LLMs) carries substantial repercussions. This represents a major advantage for America, yet it also affects the manner in which this technology is both created and applied. It's crucial that we ensure the technology meets our needs for collective objectives.

Is the United States administration allocating sufficient resources to ensure this outcome?

I believe we aren't there yet. It's essential to boost our financial support. A key aspect of the AI executive order involves establishing a National AI Research Resource. The issue is that researchers lack the same level of access to data and computational resources as corporations do. There's a proposal under review by Congress, which has strong backing from the administration, aiming to allocate about $3 billion in resources to the National Science Foundation.

This represents a minimal portion of the capital being invested in a firm such as OpenAI.

Constructing these cutting-edge models requires significant financial investment. The challenge lies in determining the best ways to regulate sophisticated AI technology and ensure its application benefits the public. It's imperative that the government steps up its efforts. Assistance from Congress is crucial. Additionally, it's necessary to establish a new type of interaction with the business sector, different from what has been the norm previously.

How could that appear?

Examine the production of semiconductors and the implications of the CHIPS

We'll address that topic subsequently. Initially, let's focus on the president. What's the extent of his grasp on matters such as artificial intelligence?

One of the highlights of my career was collaborating with the president, guiding him through the latest technological advancements, such as the time we presented chatbot demonstrations in the Oval Office.

How did that feel?

Employing a laptop equipped with ChatGPT, we selected a topic that had caught our attention. The recent event where the president honored Bruce Springsteen with the National Medal of Arts was our focus. The president humorously noted Springsteen’s New Jersey roots, which lie just across the river from his own home state of Delaware, and mentioned a legal dispute between the two states, which was news to me. We were intrigued by the idea of exploring this lawsuit further. To start, we prompted ChatGPT to simplify the lawsuit for a young child. The response began with an engaging, “OK,">kiddo, imagine if you were in a disagreement with someone…” Next, we requested the AI to draft a legal brief suitable for the Supreme Court, receiving in turn a detailed formal legal discourse. Inspired by this, we then created a song mirroring Bruce Springsteen’s style about the lawsuit. Additionally, we experimented with visual creations, including producing an image depicting his dog Commander at the iconic Resolute desk in the Oval Office.

The name provided is Boone Ash

Lauren Goode


Timothy Barber

Prabhakar mentions that the government is currently navigating the complex and technical aspects of implementing AI technologies.

How did the president respond?

He expressed his astonishment, saying, "Incredible, I had no idea it was capable of that." Although this wasn't his initial encounter with artificial intelligence, this instance provided him with firsthand insight. It opened up an opportunity for us to truly explore the mechanics behind it. While it might appear to be some sort of mystical phenomenon, it's crucial to look beyond the surface and grasp that these models are essentially computer programs developed by individuals who feed them data, which are then employed to generate impressively accurate statistical forecasts.

The executive order touches on numerous topics. Which ones do you believe captured the president's attention the most following the demonstration?

During that time, what really shifted was his heightened sense of urgency. He tasked us with the responsibility of risk management to unlock potential advantages. Our strategy was intentionally broad, encompassing a wide range of areas, which is why the executive order issued was notably extensive and comprehensive. The order aimed to tackle various risks including those to information integrity, caused by deceit and fraud, as well as threats to safety, security, civil rights, liberties, issues of discrimination, privacy concerns, economic impacts, worker welfare, and intellectual property (IP). These risks are expected to affect different individuals in diverse ways, unfolding over various periods. While some of these risks are already mitigated by existing laws—for example, committing fraud is clearly illegal—other areas, such as those concerning intellectual property, lack straightforward solutions.

The order contains numerous requirements that have specific timelines for completion. How is progress going in meeting those deadlines?

The objectives have been achieved. We've just implemented all the 90-day targets that have been reached. A segment of the initiative that's particularly exciting to me is the AI Council, comprising cabinet members and leaders of different regulatory bodies. Their gatherings are unique, not the usual high-level meetings where everything is predetermined. Instead, these sessions are filled with vibrant conversations, with participants eagerly contributing, fully aware of the importance of accurately addressing AI issues.

Ashworth Boone

Lauren Goode


Timothy Barber

Concerns are rising that major corporations will monopolize the technology sector. Microsoft, for example, effectively absorbed Inflection, a prominent startup. Does this trend towards consolidation worry you?

The discussion undoubtedly includes competition. The executive order explicitly addresses this point. A key aspect of this matter is how much influence will be concentrated among those capable of developing these large-scale models.

The mandate stipulates that AI technology should incorporate fairness and exclude any form of bias. Numerous individuals in Washington DC are committed to challenging mandates related to diversity. Meanwhile, some are wary of the government defining what constitutes bias. The question arises: How can the government ethically and legally influence this matter?

Here's the current situation. At the end of October, the president enacted an executive order. Shortly thereafter, the Office of Management and Budget released a preliminary memo detailing guidelines for the entire government's application of AI. We're now delving into the more complex, technical aspects, yet this stage is crucial. This set of instructions is key to establishing procedures that will ensure the government's use of AI tools avoids incorporating bias.

So, the plan is to not enforce regulations on private businesses but to apply them to the public sector instead, and since the government is a major purchaser, businesses will inevitably implement these standards universally?

This may assist in establishing a general operational framework. However, it's important to note that existing laws and regulations prohibit discrimination in hiring and financial lending practices. Therefore, while utilizing AI is permissible, it does not absolve you of legal responsibilities.

Have you taken a look at Marc Andreessen's manifesto filled with technology optimism?

Yes, it's come to my attention before.

The text suggests that impeding AI development is akin to committing an act of murder, as unrestricted advancement in this field is portrayed as a means to save lives.

The perspective presented is too simplified. The entire span of human history demonstrates that advanced technologies are utilized for both beneficial and detrimental purposes. The aspect I truly appreciate about my career spanning four to five decades is witnessing the consistent stride towards progress after considerable effort. This progression isn't a direct result of innovative technology alone. It stems from numerous critical decisions regarding the application of technology, the avoidance of its misuse, ensuring its accessibility, and controlling its negative impacts.

"I'm attempting to understand whether you'll produce a series of commendable research articles, or you'll make significant progress in cancer treatment."

What steps are you taking to promote AI adoption in the public sector?

Currently, artificial intelligence (AI) is being employed by government agencies in relatively simple capacities. The Department of Veterans Affairs is utilizing AI technology to gather insights from veterans to enhance the services offered to them. Meanwhile, the Social Security Administration is implementing AI to expedite the review and approval of disability claims.

Those programs are from the past. So, what comes after? Officials in government roles dedicate numerous hours to the creation of official papers. Is there a role for artificial intelligence in this workflow?

This highlights an example of generative AI application. Within a corporate setting, it's crucial to navigate its ethical deployment, ensuring that confidential information remains secure and biases are not perpetuated. What particularly enthuses me about the executive order is the call for an influx of AI talent. It's an open invitation to AI professionals that now is an opportune moment to leverage their expertise for global advancement by joining the government, as announced on

The name mentioned is Boone Ash

Lauren Goode

Emma Johnson

Timothy Barber

What progress have you made in that procedure?

We're currently in the process of pairing individuals. We have outstanding candidates arriving.

Sure, let's discuss the CHIPS Act, a key initiative by the Biden administration aimed at rejuvenating the American semiconductor sector. This law allocates over $50 billion to expand the domestic production of semiconductors, and it's intended to encourage additional private sector investment, correct?

The tale began several decades back when the United States led the world in semiconductor production. Over the years, the sector expanded worldwide, eventually leading to a precarious concentration of its operations in a geopolitically sensitive region. About eighteen months ago, the president successfully urged Congress to come together across party lines, paving the path for the United States to adopt a novel approach in its collaboration with the domestic semiconductor industry.

In what way do they differ?

Constructing fabrication plants independently by the government isn't a feasible approach. Instead, our collaboration involves businesses determining the appropriate products to manufacture and their locations, with government support provided based on these decisions. This marks the first instance of the US adopting this strategy for this sector, although it's a method previously employed in various countries globally.

Arati Prabhakar strolls through the Eisenhower Executive Office Building situated within the grounds of The White House.

There are those who believe the idea of the US regaining a substantial portion of semiconductor and electronics production is purely wishful thinking. Clearly, your opinion is contrary to this.

We're not aiming to revert to the tactics of the 1980s by advocating for all production to return to the US. Instead, our approach focuses on ensuring the United States possesses the necessary resilience and addresses our national security requirements.

Intel received the largest grant, amounting to $8 billion. According to its CEO, Pat Gelsinger, the current CHIPS Act falls short of elevating the U.S. to a competitive position, suggesting the necessity for a second iteration of the act, CHIPS 2. Does his assessment hold merit?


Lauren Goode

Emily Mullin

Tim Barber

I believe the solution remains unknown to everyone at this point. There are numerous elements to consider. Currently, the focus is on constructing the fabrication plants.

As a previous leader of Darpa, you were integrated into the military framework. What is your perspective on the opinions held by staff at certain corporations, such as Google, regarding their opposition to engaging in military agreements?

It's commendable when corporate professionals critically examine the applications of their labor. I hold this in high regard. From my perspective, the safeguarding of our nation's security is fundamental for everyone. Within Silicon Valley, there's a prevailing assumption that one's daily endeavor is to develop and invest in enterprises. This isn't a mere coincidence. It's significantly influenced by our contributions to national security.

Your department is leading an initiative that the president has dubbed the Cancer Moonshot. It appears that every president during my lifetime has launched their own effort to eradicate cancer. I recall President Nixon initiating a battle against cancer. What makes this initiative different from the others?

Significant strides have been made in the battle against cancer. The president and his wife have outlined two ambitious objectives. Firstly, they aim to reduce the age-adjusted mortality rate from cancer by 50% within the next quarter-century. Secondly, they seek to improve the journey for individuals battling the disease. It has become increasingly clear that cancer is an intricate illness with numerous facets. For a nation as affluent as the United States, the current health outcomes are simply not up to par. In my discussion with Danielle Carnival, who is at the helm of the Cancer Moonshot initiative and previously served under the vice president during the Obama era, I expressed my curiosity about whether our efforts would merely result in academic publications or actually make a tangible difference in the fight against cancer. She highlighted not only the development of innovative treatments but also the vital importance of broadening access to early detection screenings. Early detection can drastically alter the prognosis. Upon hearing this, I was reassured that our efforts would, indeed, make a significant impact.

Do you believe that a significant portion of the public harbors an antagonism towards science?

Individuals have grown increasingly doubtful about various topics. This skepticism particularly pertains to contentious subjects such as climate change, vaccinations, and protocols for other infectious diseases. Researchers are eager to provide more information, yet they need to approach these topics with modesty. Positioning science on a pedestal akin to a belief system does not seem to be the most effective strategy. During the second year of the pandemic, there was frequent criticism about the evolving advice, to which I thought, "Naturally, recommendations are evolving as our knowledge expands." This period demanded a dose of modesty from the scientific community, rather than adopting an all-knowing stance.

Does leading science policy feel uncomfortable in an era where a significant number of individuals doubt empirical evidence?

It's not necessarily as drastic as it seems. Individuals have historically made decisions influenced not only by concrete evidence but also by personal circumstances and the intricate web of ideas they're part of. It's important to recognize the complexity of human nature.

Name Unchanged

Lauren Goode


Tim Barber

One aspect of your role involves recruiting and supervising the country's top tech executive. However, we currently lack such a position. What's the reason for this absence?

When I joined, the project had already been underway for a significant period. It presented a substantial challenge. Recruiting is notably hard since most individuals in the tech field have existing financial commitments.

It's difficult for me to understand how, in a nation teeming with skilled individuals, there isn't at least one person capable of filling that position who either doesn't possess shares or is unable to divest their assets. Does this issue not rank highly on your list of concerns?

Considerable effort was invested in this project, yet success has remained elusive.

Will we complete the entire period without appointing a Chief Technology Officer?

I don't have any forecasts. There's nothing more I can offer.

With the current administration's term nearing its end, President Biden has elevated your position to that of a cabinet status. Has the realm of science and technology finally achieved its rightful place within the governmental hierarchy?

Certainly, it's quite apparent to me. Consider some of the most significant transformations—such as the initial substantial progress in tackling climate issues, implementing strategies on a level that truly impacts the climate. I observe these developments across various sectors and I find it exhilarating.

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