AI just had its big day on Capitol Hill.
Sam Altman, who is the CEO of ChatGPT’s parent company OpenAI, and a figurehead for the current AI discourse, appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee‘s subcommittee on privacy, technology, and the law for the first time Tuesday. Members of Congress pressed Altman, as well as IBM chief privacy and trust officer Christina Montgomery, and AI expert and NYU emeritus professor of psychology and neural science Gary Marcus, on numerous aspects of generative AI, regarding potential risks and what regulation in the space could look like.
And the hearing went…surprisingly okay?
I know it’s hard to believe. It’s a weird feeling to even write this, having covered numerous Congressional hearings on tech over the years.
Unlike, say, all the previous Congressional hearings on social media, members of Congress seemed to have a general understanding of what potential risks posed by AI actually look like. Septuagenarians may not get online content moderation, but they certainly understand the concept of job loss due to emerging technology. Section 230 may be a fairly confusing law for non web-savvy lawmakers, but they certainly are familiar with copyright laws when discussing potential concerns regarding AI.
Another breath of fresh air coming out of the AI hearing: It was a fairly bipartisan discussion. Hearings on social media frequently devolve into tit for tat back-and-forth needling between Democrats and Republicans over issues like misinformation and online censorship.
Online discussions around AI may be focusing on “woke” chatbots and whether AI models should be able to utter racial slurs. However, there was none of that here at the hearing. Members of both parties seemed to focus solely on the topic at hand, which according to the title of the hearing was Oversight of A.I.: Rules for Artificial Intelligence. Even Senator John Kennedy’s (R-LA) hypothetical scenario in which AI developers try to destroy the world was maneuvered back on track by the experts who pivoted to discussing datasets and AI training.
Perhaps the biggest tell that things went as well as a Congressional tech hearing could go: There are no memes going viral showcasing how out-of-touch U.S. lawmakers are. The dramatic beginning of the hearing featured Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), the chairman of the committee, playing deepfake audio of himself reading an ChatGPT-generated script (Audio deepfakes use AI models to clone voices). From there, the proceedings remained productive to the end.
Yes, the bar is low when the comparison is to previous tech hearings. And the hearing wasn’t perfect. A major part of the conversation surrounding AI right now is just how dangerous the technology is. Much of this is straight-up hype from the industry, an edgy attempt to market AI’s immense, and profitable, capabilities (Remember how crypto was going to be the future and those not throwing their money into the space were “NGMI” or “not gonna make it?”). Also, lawmakers, as usual, seem dismayingly open to members of the industry they’re looking to regulate designing those very regulations. And, while Altman was in agreement with the need for regulation, we’ve heard the same thing from Silicon Valley types, including some who were in retrospect, likely bad faith actors.
But this hearing showed that there is potential for Congress to avoid the same mistakes it’s made with social media. But, remember, there’s just as much potential, if not more, for them to screw it all up.