WASHINGTON — Congress turns its attention to artificial intelligence this week as some of the most high-profile names in Big Tech descend on Capitol Hill for a first-of-its-kind gathering to brainstorm ways lawmakers can regulate the fast-moving technology that experts have warned could lead to human extinction.
In a closed-door meeting Wednesday, all 100 senators will hear from Elon Musk, who bought Twitter and rebranded it X; Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg; Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates; Sam Altman, the CEO of ChatGPT company OpenAI; and a host of other prominent tech leaders for what Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has dubbed his inaugural AI Insight Forum.
The Senate brainstorming sessions will run through the fall.
“Let’s see if there’s enough oxygen in the room for all of us,” quipped Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., who plans to attend.
Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., said with a smile that he’s anticipating “a lot of drama” Wednesday, perhaps a nod to the much-hyped cage match that never materialized this year between tech titans Musk and Zuckerberg.
“We’ll see what actually comes out as far as content,” Lankford said, adding that “all those tech CEOs are surrounded by lawyers telling them what to say and what not to say.”
With a who’s who of the tech world all in one building, the forum is sure to attract an army of staffers, lobbyists and reporters. Security is heightened anytime Musk, also the top executive at SpaceX and Tesla and the world’s richest person, enters the Capitol; security will be even tighter with a band of tech billionaires roaming the halls.
That same day, a House Oversight subcommittee, led by Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., will hold a hearing with Biden administration technology officials titled: “How are Federal Agencies Harnessing Artificial Intelligence?”
And Tuesday, the Senate will hold a pair of AI hearings. The leaders of a key Commerce and Science subcommittee — Sens. John Hickenlooper, D-Colo., and Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn. — will hear testimony from experts on how AI companies can boost transparency and the public’s trust.
Meanwhile, the leaders of the Judiciary’s subcommittee on technology and privacy — Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Josh Hawley, R-Mo. — plan to hold their third hearing on AI oversight and regulations, featuring leaders from Microsoft and powerhouse chipmaker Nvidia.
The Senate duo recently unveiled a bipartisan framework for its forthcoming legislation, simply named the U.S. AI Act, that includes requiring AI companies to register with an independent oversight body to ensure they can be held legally liable for things like privacy breaches and explicit deep fakes, and to mandate transparency requirements for training data and accuracy of AI models.
Blumenthal said his bipartisan framework is “closely aligned” with Schumer’s framework on AI, and he said committees are “working in tandem” with the Democratic leader’s high-profile tech forums.
“For the leader to make it a priority and devote this much time to it sends a powerful signal about the need for legislation,” Blumenthal said in an interview. “We all know the way Congress works is legislation comes from committees. Very rarely does a bill go directly to the floor and certainly not a major bill of this importance.”
Schumer in the AI spotlight
Whether legislation can be written and brought to the floor by the end of the year remains unknown. (Ask ChatGPT and the AI platform will tell you whether or not a bill will be passed by Congress in the future is uncertain.) But it’s unusual for the leader of the Senate to take ownership of a specific policy issue, as Schumer has done with artificial intelligence — particularly since it’s a topic he has not focused much on in the past.
In a major speech on AI this summer, Schumer called this “a moment of revolution.” And the New York Democrat has formed his own bipartisan working group on AI that includes Sens. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., Todd Young, R-Ind., and Mike Rounds, R-S.D. The group is embarking on a balancing act: They’re talking about how AI can improve life for Americans but also emphasizing that it poses serious threats, potentially displacing millions of jobs, interfering in elections and spreading disinformation, and posing national security threats.
“If we don’t do anything, AI is going to move forward without us and the dangers could be maximized and the opportunities could be minimized. And so this is going to be one of the most important sessions if you will, that Congress has had,” Schumer told reporters. The forums, a novel approach, are needed because AI is “so unique. It is broad and deep. It’s going to affect every aspect of society. It is constantly changing and it is very complicated.”
Part of the challenge in drafting legislation on AI is that it touches on virtually every committee in Congress, from Commerce and Judiciary to Armed Services, Agriculture and Energy. For example, Sen. Ben Ray Lujan., D-N.M., a Commerce and Science committee member, said he has taken an interest in film and music copyright infringement but also new AI standards from the National Institute of Standards and Technology, known as NIST.
“It’s endless,” Lujan said.
The goal of the series of insight forums is to “get as much information as possible” to help committee leaders of both parties see how AI will affect areas over which they have jurisdiction.
“This won’t work if we don’t keep the committee structure working, and it won’t work if we don’t keep it bipartisan,” Rounds said in an interview. Asked when lawmakers could craft a legislative solution to address the already-booming industry, Rounds couldn’t give a definitive answer: “We’re in the learning phase, and we’re going to be there for a while.”
The inventors and innovators
Sen. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., another Commerce panel member, said she wants to ensure that any new regulation doesn’t stifle innovation from some of the small inventors and innovators.
“We want to make sure that, first of all, not when we make AI policy but if we make AI policy, that we’re listening to not only the high-profile, very wealthy people on the front lines but also the innovators that are doing things behind the scenes that we don’t even know about,” Lummis said.
“Those kinds of innovations aren’t necessarily going to come from the Elon Musks and Mark Zuckerbergs — they’re more apt to be the ones who purchase that technology from the people who create the technology,” Lummis continued. “So what we want to do is make sure that we’re not helping create monopolistic situations in emerging industries and AI is an emerging industry.”
On the other side of the chamber, House Republicans, led by Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., have also expressed reservations about over-regulating artificial intelligence at a time when most lawmakers do not fully grasp it. McCarthy organized a bipartisan briefing for members this spring with experts from MIT.
“I mean, I saw Schumer went out and said he wanted to [regulate AI],” McCarthy said during an interview earlier this year. “Schumer uses a flip phone. I’m not sure a guy with a flip phone that doesn’t even know how to use a smartphone should be talking about what he’s doing in AI.”
In addition to Musk, Zuckerberg and Gates, the CEOs of Google, IBM, Microsoft, Nvidia and Palantir will be on hand at Wednesday’s forum, along with the heads of labor, human rights and entertainment groups. They include Elizabeth Shuler, president of the AFL-CIO; Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers; and Charles Rivkin, chairman and CEO of the Motion Picture Association.
Scott Wong is a senior congressional reporter for NBC News.