WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Leader Dick Durbin, D-Ill., acknowledged that he «has a lot to learn about what’s going on» with artificial intelligence, calling it «very concerning.»

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., a member of the Science and Commerce Committee, called AI «new ground and uncharted territory.»

And Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said that while he receives classified reports on emerging technology in the Intelligence Committee, he has only a «basic understanding» of AI.

For the past two decades, Washington has refused to regulate big tech companies as they have grown from small start-ups to global powerhouses, from Google and Amazon to social media giants Facebook and Twitter.

Lawmakers have always hesitated to be perceived as stifling innovation, but when they have intervened, some have shown little understanding of the very tech they sought to regulate

Now, artificial intelligence has burst onto the scene, threatening to disrupt the American education system and economy. After last fall’s surprise release of OpenAI’s ChatGPT, millions of curious users across the US experimented with the fledgling technology, asking the chatbot to write poetry, rap songs, recipes, resumes, essays, computer code, and more. marketing plans, as well as taking an MBA exam and offering therapy advice.

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Seeing the limitless potential, ChatGPT has spurred what some tech watchers call an «AI arms race.» Microsoft only invested $10 billion in OpenAI. Alphabet, the parent company of Google, and Chinese search giant Baidu are taking out their own chatbot competitors. And a phalanx of new startups, including Lensa, are hitting the market, allowing users to create hundreds of AI-generated pieces of art or images at the click of a button.

The leaders of San Francisco-based OpenAI have opened encouraged government regulators Getting involved But Congress has maintained a hands-off approach in Silicon Valley (the last significant legislation enacted to regulate technology was the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998) and lawmakers are once again catching up. with an industry that moves at high speed.

“The rapid escalation of the AI ​​arms race that ChatGPT has catalyzed really underscores how far behind Congress is when it comes to regulating technology and the cost of its failure,” said Jesse Lehrich, co-founder of left-leaning watchdog Accountable Tech. and former Hillary Clinton aide.

“We don’t even have a federal privacy law. We have done nothing to mitigate the myriad social harms of existing Big Tech products,” Lehrich added. “And now, never having faced a reckoning and with no oversight, these same companies are rushing out half-baked AI tools to try to capture the next market. It’s shameful, and the risks are monumental.»

‘Huge disruption’

Congress is not completely in the dark when it comes to AI. A handful of lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans, want Washington to play a bigger role in the tech debate, as experts predict that AI and automation could soon displace tens of millions of jobs in the US and change the way students are assessed in the classroom.

And they’re getting creative in getting that message across to Hill’s colleagues and constituents back home. In January, Rep. Jake Auchincloss, a millennial Democrat from Massachusetts, delivered what was believed to be the first floor speech written by AI, in this case, ChatGPT. The subject: his bill to create a US-Israel artificial intelligence center.

The same month, Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., one of four lawmakers with degrees in computer science, or AI, had artificial intelligence draft a House resolution calling on Congress to regulate AI.

Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., on Capitol Hill on January 25, 2023.
Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., on Capitol Hill on Jan. 25.Michael Brochstein/Sipa USA via AP

“Let me first say that no staff member lost their job and no member of Congress lost their job when AI wrote this resolution,” Lieu joked in an interview. But he conceded: “There is going to be a huge upheaval from job losses. There will be jobs that will be eliminated and then new ones will be created.

«Artificial intelligence to me is like the steam engine right now, which was really disruptive to society,» Lieu added. «And in a few years, it will be a rocket engine with a personality, and we must be prepared for the enormous disruptions that society will experience.»

One legislator is answering his peers’ call to learn about fast-advancing technology: Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va, 72. When he’s not attending committee hearings, voting on bills or meeting with constituents, Beyer has been using whatever free time he has to pursue a master’s degree in machine learning from George Mason University.

«The explosion of the availability of all knowledge to everyone on the planet is going to be a very good thing and a very dangerous thing,» Beyer said in a joint interview with Lt. and Rep. Jay Obernolte, R-Calif., in the Committee’s hearing room. of Science, Space and Technology of the Chamber.

Threats to national security and society

The danger of AI is not what has been portrayed in Hollywood, lawmakers said.

“What artificial intelligence is not is evil robots with red laser eyes, a la Terminator,” said Obernolte, who earned a master’s degree in artificial intelligence from UCLA and founded video game developer FarSight Studios.

Instead, AI poses threats to national security and society, from deepfakes that could influence US elections to facial recognition surveillance and exploitation of digital privacy.

«AI has this uncanny ability to think in the same way that we do and to make some very spooky predictions about human behavior,» Obernolte said. “It has the potential to unlock surveillance states, like what China has been doing with it, and it has the potential to expand social inequalities in ways that are very damaging to us, to the fabric of our society.

«So those are the things we’re focused on stopping.»

With the growing security threat from China, TikTok is also in the crosshairs of Congress. legislators banned the viral video-based app, owned by China’s ByteDance, from government devices in December. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., and other China hawks have pushed legislation that would ban TikTok entirely in the US, saying it could give the Chinese Communist Party access to Americans’ digital data.

But the bill has not garnered enough support. On Tuesday, Hawley too introduced legislation that would prohibit children under the age of 16 from being on social networks and another bill to commission a report on the harm social media inflicts on children.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, Republican of California, once a Silicon Valley darlinghas become one of the most vocal critics of Big Tech. He is working to get all members of the House Intelligence Committee, Republicans and Democrats, to take a specially designed course at MIT focused on AI and quantum computing. .

Some of the AI ​​can «help us find cures and medicines,» McCarthy told reporters. But she said: “There are also some threats out there. We have to be able to work together and have all the knowledge.”

Lieu, an Air Force veteran, doesn’t think AI will ever become conscious: «No matter how smart your smart toaster is, at the end of the day it’s still a toaster.»

But Lieu warns that AI is being incorporated into systems that could kill humans.

“You have AI running in vehicles, they can go over 100 miles per hour, and if it goes wrong, it could cause traffic accidents and kill people,” he said.

“You have AI in all kinds of different systems that, if it goes wrong, could affect our lives. And we need to make sure that there are certain limits or safeguards to make sure that the AI ​​does not, in fact, do great damage.”