Sep 14, 2023 - Technology

CEOs tell senators: Time to regulate AI

Photo of long table of two dozen tech CEOs and other figures at the Senate's AI Forum Wednesday.

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Senators left Majority Leader Chuck Schumer's AI Insight Forum in D.C. Wednesday talking about an urgent need to pass legislation governing AI, while CEOs agreed that Washington must play a role.

Of note: After the closed-to-the-public meeting, Elon Musk said it was important for tech leaders to "have a referee" in Washington and suggested the meeting "may go down in history as very important to the future of civilization."

Why it matters: The event strengthened Washington's consensus that government must take a strong hand with the new technology — even as the likelihood of immediate action remained low.

  • There are many more forums like Wednesday's on tap, and Congress is preoccupied with a looming partisan budget deadlock.

Driving the news: More than 60 senators showed up to the closed-door briefing — with Musk, Bill Gates, Sundar Pichai, Mark Zuckerberg and Sam Altman among 20 tech and civil society leaders in the room.

What they're saying: Schumer told reporters, "I asked everyone in the room, does government need to play a role in regulating AI? And every single person raised their hands, even though they had diverse views. That gives us a message — we have to try to act, as difficult as the process is."

In an interview with Axios after the event, Schumer said, "This is one of the most difficult issues Congress can ever deal with — it's so complicated, even [former Google CEO] Eric Schmidt said he doesn't understand the algorithms."

  • "Government needs to act a whole lot faster than it ever has in the past," Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) told Axios.
  • Commerce Committee chair Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) said AI legislation can get done in the next year, but Republican senators, including Mike Rounds of South Dakota, warned that Congress is not yet ready to legislate.
  • Schumer noted, "The EU went too fast, now they have to pull back," a reference to June changes to the bloc's draft AI Act to take account of generative AI advances.

What's next: Legislative work will ultimately happen in committee.

  • Schumer told Axios he envisions AI following the same model as the CHIPS and Science Act, where legislation will be pursued in a bipartisan way and committees rely on scientific and technical information from the forums.
  • Cantwell said the forum is speeding up her panel's process because they're gathering a lot of input from key players.

Yes, but: Schumer is facing criticism about the closed-door nature of the first event and the fact that senators couldn't ask questions directly to the CEOs.

  • Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) urged that tech CEOs be required to testify in open hearings instead.
  • "All of the senators are sitting there, and ask no questions, that's what's happening," Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) told reporters, urging an end to "special treatment" of big tech companies, and "a tech industry bill that addresses that head on."

Zoom in: One theme that emerged from senators and attendees was maintaining U.S. leadership on the global stage.

  • "I believe it's better that the standard is set by American companies that can work with our government to shape these models on important issues," per the prepared remarks of Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
  • Zuckerberg has mounted that argument in various forms since 2019, sometimes directly referencing strategic competition from China.

Other notable parts of the forum, according to Schumer:

  • CEOs said government funding is needed for "transformational" innovations that could help cure cancer, combat hunger or bolster national security.
  • There was agreement that only government can put in the guardrails needed for "sustainable" innovation that negates harms like bias.

What's next: Schumer told Axios the next Senate AI forum will focus on how the government can encourage innovation to mitigate AI risks and unleash its potential.

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