Blog Post | 
August 2023

Defining “frontier AI”

Key concepts in U.S. federal law

Suzanne Van Arsdale, Kevin Frazier

What are legislative and administrative definitions?

Congress usually defines key terms like “Frontier AI” in legislation to establish the scope of agency authorization. The agency then implements the law through regulations that more precisely set forth what is regulated, in terms sufficiently concrete to give notice to those subject to the regulation. In doing so, the agency may provide administrative definitions of key terms and provide specific examples or mechanisms.

Who can update these definitions?

Congress can amend legislation and might do so to supersede regulatory or judicial interpretations of the legislation. The agency can amend regulations to update its own definitions and implementation of the legislative definition.

Congress can also expressly authorize an agency to further define a term. For example, the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act defines “pest” to include any organism “the Administrator declares to be a pest” pursuant to 7 U.S.C. § 136.

What is the process for updating administrative definitions?

For a definition to be legally binding, by default an agency must follow the rulemaking process in the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). Typically, this requires that the agency go through specific notice-and-comment proceedings (informal rulemaking). 

Congress can change the procedures an agency must follow to make rules, for example by dictating the frequency of updates or by authorizing interim final rulemaking, which permits the agency to accept comments after the rule is issued instead of before.

Can a technical standard be incorporated by reference into regulations and statutes?

Yes, but incorporation by reference in regulations is limited. The agency must specify what version of the standard is being incorporated, and regulations cannot dynamically update with a standard. Incorporation by reference in federal regulations is also subject to other requirements. When Congress codifies a standard in a statute, it may incorporate future versions directly, as it did in the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, defining “drug” with reference to the United States Pharmacopoeia. 21 U.S.C. § 321(g). Congress can instead require that an agency use a particular standard. For example, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act effectively adopted ASTM International Standards on toy safety as consumer product safety standards and required the Consumer Product Safety Commission to incorporate future revisions into consumer product safety rules. 15 U.S.C. § 2056b(a) & (g).

How frequently could the definition be updated?

By default the rulemaking process is time-consuming. While the length of time needed to issue a rule varies, estimates from several agencies range from 6 months to over 4 years; the internal estimate of the average for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is 3.5 years and for the Department of Transportation is 1.5 years. Less significant updates, such as minor changes to a definition or list of regulated models, might take less time. However, legislation could impliedly or expressly allow updates to be made in a shorter time frame than permitted by the APA.

An agency may bypass some or all of the notice-and-comment process “for good cause” if to do otherwise would be “impracticable, unnecessary, or contrary to the public interest,” 5 U.S.C. § 553(b)(3)(B), such as in the interest of an emergent national security issue or to prevent widespread disruption of flights. It may also bypass the process if the time required would harm the public or subvert the underlying statutory scheme, such as when an agency relied on the exemption for decades to issue weekly rules on volume restrictions for agricultural commodities because it could not reasonably “predict market and weather conditions more than a month in advance” as the 30-day advance notice would require (Riverbend Farms, 9th Cir. 1992).

Congress can also implicitly or explicitly waive the APA requirements. While mere existence of a statutory deadline is not sufficient, a stringent deadline that makes compliance impractical might constitute good cause. 

What existing regulatory regimes may offer some guidance?

  1. The Federal Select Agents Program (FSAP) regulates biological agents that threaten public health, maintains a database of such agents, and inspects entities using such agents. FSAP also works with the FBI to evaluate entity-specific security risks. Finally, FSAP investigates incidents of non-compliance. FSAP provides a model for regulating technology as well as labs. The Program has some drawbacks worthy of study, including risks of regulatory capture (entity investigations are often not done by an independent examiner), prioritization issues (high-risk activities are often not prioritized), and resource allocation (entity investigations are often slow and tedious).
  2. The FDA approves generic drugs by comparing their similarity in composition and risk to existing, approved drugs. Generic drug manufacturers attempt to show sufficient similarity to an approved drug so as to warrant a less rigorous review by the FDA. This framework has parallels with a relative, comparative definition of Frontier AI.

What are the potential legal challenges?

  1. Under the major questions doctrine, courts will not accept an agency interpretation of a statute that grants the agency authority over a matter of great “economic or political significance” unless there is a “clear congressional authorization” for the claimed authority. Defining “frontier AI” in certain regulatory contexts could plausibly qualify as a “major question.” Thus, an agency definition of “Frontier AI” could be challenged under the major questions doctrine if issued without congressional authorization.
  2. The regulation could face a non-delegation doctrine challenge, which limits congressional delegation of its legislative power. The doctrine requires Congress to include an “intelligible principle” on how to exercise its delegated authority. In practice, this is a lenient standard; however, some commentators believe that the Supreme Court may strengthen the doctrine in the near future. Legislation that provides more specific guidance regarding policy decisions is less problematic from a nondelegation perspective than legislation that confers a great deal of discretion on the agency and provides little or no guidance on how the agency should exercise it.

Suzanne Van Arsdale & Kevin Frazier, Defining “Frontier AI”: Key Concepts in U.S. Federal Law (Inst. for L. & A.I., 2024),

Defining “frontier AI”
Key concepts in U.S. federal law
Suzanne Van Arsdale, Kevin Frazier
Defining “frontier AI”
Key concepts in U.S. federal law
Suzanne Van Arsdale, Kevin Frazier