Santa Cruz County on Tuesday became the first jurisdiction in the region—and one of the first in the state—to adopt a policy of how to use artificial intelligence (AI), and how to address issues that might arise such as data accuracy, privacy and cybersecurity.
The supervisors in June directed staff to create a set of guidelines for the responsible and ethical use of AI systems. The ad-hoc AI Policy Committee (AIPC) then developed guidelines.
The Artificial Intelligence Appropriate Use policy will begin in October. The new policy comes as people are increasingly turning to AI programs such as Open AI ChatGPT and Google Bard for work and education purposes.
“It’s unquestionably a transformative technology,” Board Chair Zach Friend said. “And I think that the policy that’s been proposed strikes this balance between harnessing this potential but also recognizing some of the risks associated with it, particularly around data privacy and other elements the county is taking a very serious look at.”
Since May, county employees have logged 33,000 sessions using these two AI tools, with roughly 10% using the tools. But the implications of allowing computers to make decisions that previously were assigned to humans are still unclear.
“This is really somewhat scary in a way,” said Supervisor Bruce McPherson. “We’re really heading into uncharted territory with this technology, and it’s really important that we keep a close eye on the problems that develop.”
Governor Gavin Newsom on Sept. 6 signed an executive order to study the benefits and risks of AI technology for the state.
According to county spokesman Jason Hoppin, the new policy allows and encourages the use of AI, while requiring humans to confirm any data gathered by the technology. It also provides guidelines to avoid misuse and the sharing of sensitive information.
Above all, AI tools should not be used to make impactful decisions under the new policy.
The policy will undergo regular reviews and updates to stay current with technological and ethical developments.
Also under the policy, staff must protect personal information. They must inform the public when they are interacting with an AI tool, and provide a choice to “opt out.”
Cup Fee Falters
In other action, the supervisors heard an update on the 25-cent fee imposed on single-use cups sold at businesses in the county’s unincorporated areas.
The fee was hailed by county leaders, who envisioned 304 businesses selling some 1.4 million cups per quarter, or $700,000 per year.
But thanks to consumers making the switch away from disposable cups—ostensibly the original purpose of the fee—and far fewer businesses participating, the revenues came in well under predictions.
According to Santa Cruz County Budget Manager Marcus Pimentel, just 67 businesses are generating $280,000 annually.
Approved in November 2019, the fee was delayed during the Covid-19 pandemic to avoid adverse impacts on local businesses.
The fee was originally slated to go to the businesses. But Measure C, approved in June 2022 by more than 69% of voters, mandates that the fee will be evenly split between the businesses and the county’s general fund.
Pimnentel said that, with increased outreach efforts to the remaining businesses, the county can increase the amount of revenue generated by the fee by 75%.
“That’s a big number to try to increase the compliance rate, but we feel we can get there,” he said.
The Supervisors agreed to a spending plan for that money, with $100,000 going to the Parks, Open Space and Cultural Services department for park maintenance, and beach cleanups, and another $100,000 to the Community Development and Infrastructure department for cleaning illegally dumped garbage. Each board member will get $10,000 to give to a nonprofit, while $30,000 will go to cover administrative costs.
“It’s nice to bring in funding to the county for cleanup programs,” said Friend, who introduced the fee in 2019. “Ideally what we’re trying to do is reduce the waste. It’s OK to be off when one of the reasons is that there has been a consumer behavioral change.”