Congress is racing to regulate AI. Silicon Valley is eager to teach them how.

When Congressman Jerry McNerney took over the House AI caucus in 2018, his colleagues weren’t all that interested.

There was difficulty getting members to attend our meetings, said the California Democrat, estimating a typical session would draw about 18 to 20 lawmakers from the body of 435 people.

McNerney’s counterparts across the Atlantic also felt the lack of enthusiasm. Brussels was expanding efforts to regulate the technology in 2020, but when Dragos Tudorache, a Romanian member of the European Parliament who co-leads work on artificial intelligence, reached out to the US caucus, there seemed to be little political momentum.

This has changed. The immediate success of AI-powered ChatGPT sparked a frenzy among Washington lawmakers to draft new laws that address the promise and peril of the expanding field. When Tudorache visited Washington last month, she witnessed a flurry of activity around AI and attended a bipartisan briefing with OpenAI CEO Sam Altman.

There’s a different mood, Tudorache said in an interview.

But coping with rapidly evolving technology requires a sophisticated understanding of the complicated systems that underpin artificial intelligence, which sometimes confuses even experts. Congressional salary caps that pale in comparison to sky-high Silicon Valley salaries make it difficult to retain staff technologists, putting lawmakers at a disadvantage in catching up with a goal that has become increasingly urgent as the European Union has passed Washington, advancing robust AI legislation this week alone.

Europe moves forward on AI regulation, challenging the power of tech giants

To reach, Congressmen and their staff are looking for a crash course in artificial intelligence. With Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (DN.Y.) preparing to unveil a plan Wednesday on how Congress could regulate AI, lawmakers are suddenly flocking to briefings with top industry executives, summoning leading academics for discussions and taking other steps to try and wrap their heads around the emerging field.

Regulatory gaps in technical expertise have provided an opening for corporate interests. Executives motivated to develop AI without hindrance are flocking to Washington, eager to lend a hand in educating lawmakers and influencing politics. Schumer said his office has met with nearly 100 outside experts, including CEOs of AI companies, scientists, AI academics, industry leaders with many different viewpoints and critics of AI, including Microsoft chairman Brad Smith and Tesla CEO Elon Musk. .

This glamor offensive has left some consumer advocates uneasy that lawmakers might let industry write their own rules that some executives openly recommend. In an interview this spring, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt argued that industry, not government, should set reasonable limits for the future of AI.

There’s no way a person outside the industry could figure out what’s possible. It’s just too new, too difficult. There is no experience, Schmidt told NBC. There is no one in the government who can do it right. But the industry can approximately do it right.

Other industry leaders are taking a different tack, bombarding Congress with their vision of how Washington should regulate their companies. Altman in May he had private meetings and a dinner with lawmakers, where he demonstrated to their amusement how ChatGPT could write a speech to give in the courtroom. Smith lectured lawmakers on the technical stack that underpins generative AI models like ChatGPT, including IT infrastructure and applications. And Smith recently unveiled his blueprint for regulating AI in a speech in Washington attended by half a dozen lawmakers.

The stereotypical view that Congress doesn’t understand technology backed by high-profile gaffes in key technology hearings is outdated, Smith said, adding that he was optimistic about Congress’ ability to keep pace with AI advances.

Regular briefings imparted more formal instruction. Senate and House leaders hosted AI discussions with MIT professors, where they reviewed the basics of how AI works and looked at the challenges with the technology, including how it can exacerbate existing biases.

In a Tuesday briefing with MIT professor Antonio Torralba hosted by Schumer’s office, some lawmakers asked key questions, including how AI learns and where it gets the data, Senator Jacky Rosen said (D-Nev .), a former computer programmer who left the Presto session.

They’re spending a lot of time and effort catching up on artificial intelligence, said Aleksander Madry, an MIT professor who spoke at a briefing in April hosted by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). Madry has since gone on professional leave and works at OpenAI.

Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) expressed skepticism about these efforts, suggesting that the technological acumen of his colleagues was hopelessly lacking.

To be fair, Congress doesn’t know what the hell it’s doing in this area, Cruz said, wearing earphones while videoconferencing at a Politico tech summit. This is an institution [where] I think the average age in the Senate is about 142. This is not a tech savvy group.

Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), who previously worked as a venture capitalist, brought researchers and industry leaders to speak with the senators after briefing all Schumer members. His guests included a mix of experts, including Microsoft chief scientific officer Eric Horvitz, executive director of the Center for Security and Emerging Technology Dewey Murdick and deputy national security adviser Anne Neuberger, according to Warner spokeswoman Rachel. Cohen.

Most of us are all on different paths in our learning curve, Warner told reporters Tuesday.

The rise of AI briefings and strong attendance are a major shift for Congress, where a handful of members, some of whom are computer science graduates, have long struggled to capture the attention of their peers. Congress hosted its first hearing on AI in 2016, according to Cruz, who said he chaired the session. House lawmakers launched an AI caucus in 2017, and their Senate counterparts launched a similar initiative in 2019.

The rise of generative AI has finally reawakened interest in such endeavors. Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) said AI will impact every congressional jurisdiction and argues lawmakers must respond by reviving the Capitols’ technology think tank, the Office of Technology Assessment, which lawmakers they defunded during the partisan battles in the 90s. Takano plans to introduce a bill next month to fund the office, along with Sen. Ben Ray Lujn (DN.M.), who sits on the Commerce Committee.

What Congress lacks is a repository of expertise that is more in an anticipatory mode, that has faster response times, that can deliver answers more quickly, Takano said. We want to have skills that are not contaminated or linked to commercial interests.

Some argue that concerns about a lack of tech skills on Capitol Hill have been exaggerated, saying lawmakers have already introduced bills that could address most problems with generative AI, including data protection and bills. of algorithmic audit.

Congresses’ job isn’t necessarily to know the ins and outs of every single technology they regulate, said Anna Lenhart, who worked on technology policy for Rep. Lori Trahan (D-Mass.). Their job is to understand the impact of technology on society, the risks and benefits.

Regulators can request technical assessments from the Government Accountability Office and the Congressional Research Service. Zach Graves, the executive director of the Foundation for American Innovation, said GAO resources have advanced in recent years, resulting in better preparation for tech hearings, like the one with Altman.

They clearly did a lot more homework, Graves said.

Still, some fear that the recent barrage of corporate lobbying around AI has pushed lawmakers uncomfortably close to the sector they aim to regulate.

The CEO behind ChatGPT warns that Congressional AI could cause harm to the world

Unlike clashes with Facebook and Google CEOs, lawmakers’ amicable hearing with Altman was a reflection of how effective intimate events, such as his private dinner, have been, said AI chief executive Sarah West Now Institute and former Senior Advisor on AI to the Federal Trade Commission.

West said executives like Google’s Schmidt are fueling the perception that AI is too difficult for Congress to understand.

This, he said, is a convenient narrative that places accountability out of the hands of the people on whom the public has vested it and into the hands of the industry that is benefiting from it.

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