An IAEA for AI? The Early History of the International Atomic Energy Agency
How the International Atomic Energy Agency came to be and what its creation can tell us about a sibling agency to regulate powerful AI models
Champ Panupong Techawongthawon, Visualising AI by DeepMind
The prospect of new global institutions to govern powerful models is featuring with increased prominence and regularity in public policy discussions. In recent months, there have been calls for an Intergovernmental Panel for Artificial Intelligence modelled on the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change, an AI-focused group similar in scope to the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), and an International Atomic Energy Agency equivalent for AI.
Perhaps the most widely discussed of these is an ‘IAEA for AI’, whose focus on promoting the peaceful use of nuclear energy its proponents suggest can be viewed as a challenge analogous to ensuring the safe use of AI around the world. Understanding how the IAEA came to be is a useful exercise for those seeking to draw lessons from the organisation to inform global AI governance approaches. To that end, this post summarises the story behind its creation.
Atoms for Peace
The story of the IAEA is the story of the end of the Second World War. Seizing an opportunity to mould a new international order in the aftermath of the conflict, the US sought to shape the emergence of institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the United Nations, supplied Europe with financial support to rebuild via its Marshall Plan, and constructed alliances with the goal of ‘containing’ the Soviet Union.
This was the context in which the US State Department Panel of Consultants on Disarmament, a group made up of officials including Robert Oppenheimer and representatives from academia and civil society, published an influential report on nuclear policy in January 1953. The panel strongly recommended that the US government adopt a policy of greater transparency with the American public regarding the capabilities of nuclear technology and the risks associated with its development. Specifically, the report (p.43) recommended "a policy of candor toward the American people—and at least equally toward its own elected representatives and responsible officials—in presenting the meaning of the arms race." The argument put forward by the panel was that once the Soviet Union would develop its own offensive nuclear capabilities, there would be no scenario in which the US could maintain the asymmetrical advantage it held during the concluding years of the conflict.
Accepting the recommendations of the report, US President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave a speech in 1953 to the United Nations General Assembly in which he proposed the creation of an international body to regulate and promote the peaceful use of nuclear power. The speech, which was known as the Atoms for Peace address, attempted to balance fears of preventing nuclear proliferation with promises of peaceful use of uranium in nuclear reactors. (We should note, however, that Atoms for Peace would later come to refer to a broader initiative including measures such as the declassification of nuclear power information and the commercialisation of atomic energy.) The 1953 speech, however, was notable in that it outlined the basis for an international agency whose mandate would be to encourage the peaceful use of nuclear fission:
The governments principally involved, to the extent permitted by elementary prudence, should begin now and continue to make joint contributions from their stockpiles of normal uranium and fissionable materials to an international atomic energy agency. We would expect that such an agency would be set up under the aegis of the United Nations…The more important responsibility of this atomic energy agency would be to devise methods whereby this fissionable material would be allocated to serve the peaceful pursuits of mankind. Experts would be mobilized to apply atomic energy to the needs of agriculture, medicine and other peaceful activities.