May 17, 2023 - Technology

AI leaders: Please regulate us

Photo of Sam Altman in suit and tie smiling, seated at testimony table, with a placard bearing his name

OpenAI CEO Sam Altman at Tuesday's Senate hearing. . Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

For what might be the first time ever, industry leaders of a new technological revolution are practically begging the government to regulate them — and they still might not get what they want.

Driving the news: A discussion Tuesday between lawmakers and tech executives about the potential misuse of generative AI featured OpenAI CEO Sam Altman urging Congress to enact rules to limit the technology's dangers.

  • Altman's regulatory wish list: “a new agency that licenses any effort above a certain threshold of capabilities,” testing of potentially dangerous AI models before deployment, and independent audits.
  • Altman appeared before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee, along with IBM chief privacy and trust officer Christina Montgomery and NYU professor Gary Marcus.

What they're saying: "This is your chance, folks, to tell us how to get this right. Please use it," said Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.). "Talk in plain English and tell us what rules to implement."

  • "This cannot be the era of 'move fast and break things,'" Montgomery said. Her priority: “define the highest risk uses of AI,” with existing agencies taking action, rather than wait to commission a new AI-focused regulator.
  • Marcus argued for safety testing in the style of clinical trials for prescription drugs.
  • All three witnesses agreed on the need for international bodies to help set standards and monitor AI. Altman offered the International Atomic Energy Agency as a model.

Reality check: AI is still more likely to cause a range of near-term harms than Congress is to regulate to prevent those harms.

Between the lines: In the past tech companies have asked to be regulated in some areas — like privacy — after their products have become controversial or raised a public outcry. The difference with AI is how early in the adoption cycle some companies are calling on government to make rules.

The other side: Some in the industry fear that effective AI regulations today would lock in the AI race's current leaders — including the OpenAI/Microsoft alliance and Google.

  • Meanwhile, critics outside the industry argue that Congress needs to consult much more widely beyond the ranks of the industry it aims to regulate.

Details: Among the worries raised by lawmakers about generative AI:

  • Election misinformation, and impersonation of public and private figures.
  • Job disruption and economic displacement.
  • Weaknesses in non-English languages, including Spanish.
  • Copyright and licensing problems.
  • Dangerous and harmful content.

Flashback: Congress failed to take early action to set rules for social media — a mistake senators said they're determined not to repeat with AI.

  • "The result is predators on the internet, toxic content, exploiting children, creating dangers for them," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn).

What they're saying: Sayan Chakraborty, co-president of Workday, who sits on the White House's National AI Advisory Committee and built his first neural network in 1989, told Axios: “We do need thoughtful regulation, we do need rules."

  • “I think people are gonna have to get much more mature about than they are now, where they are taking a vacuum cleaner to the internet, sucking up all this data and not being thoughtful about who's over-represented or underrepresented."

What's next: More AI hearings are on tap, with Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) previewing one in July that will look specifically at copyright and patents.

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