AI is a 'moment of revolution,' top Democrat says in urging swift action on regulations

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer says the development of artificial intelligence is a “moment of revolution” that requires swift action from the government

Mary Clare Jalonick
Wednesday 21 June 2023 16:23 BST
Congress Artificial Intelligence
Congress Artificial Intelligence (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

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Calling the rapid growth of artificial intelligence tools a “moment of revolution,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Wednesday that the government must act quickly to regulate companies that are developing it.

The New York Democrat said he is working on what he calls “exceedingly ambitious” bipartisan legislation to maximize the technology’s benefits and mitigate significant risks.

While Schumer did not lay out details of such legislation, he offered some key goals: protect U.S. elections from AI-generated misinformation or interference, shield U.S. workers and intellectual property, prevent exploitation by AI algorithms and create new guardrails to ward off bad actors.

AI legislation also should promote American innovation, Schumer said in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

“If applied correctly, AI promises to transform life on Earth for the better,” Schumer said. “It will reshape how we fight disease, tackle hunger, manage our lives, enrich our minds and ensure peace. But there are real dangers that present themselves as well: job displacement, misinformation, a new age of weaponry and the risk of being unable to manage this new technology altogether.”

Schumer’s declaration of urgency comes weeks after scientists and tech industry leaders, including high-level executives at Microsoft and Google, issued a warning about the perils that artificial intelligence could pose to humankind.

“Mitigating the risk of extinction from AI should be a global priority alongside other societal-scale risks such as pandemics and nuclear war,” their statement said.

Worries about artificial intelligence systems outsmarting humans and running wild have intensified in recent months with the rise of a new generation of highly capable AI chatbots such as ChatGPT. It has sent countries around the world scrambling to come up with regulations for the developing technology, with the European Union blazing the trail with its AI Act expected to be approved later this year.

On Tuesday, President Joe Biden convened a group of technology leaders in San Francisco to debate what he called the “risks and enormous promises” of artificial intelligence. In May, the administration brought together tech CEOs at the White House to discuss these issues, with the Democratic president telling them, “What you’re doing has enormous potential and enormous danger.”

“We’ll see more technological change in the next 10 years that we saw in the last 50 years,” Biden said.

White House chief of staff Jeff Zients’ office is developing a set of actions the federal government can take over the coming weeks regarding AI, according to the White House.

Schumer's hands-on involvement in crafting AI legislation is unusual, as Senate leaders usually leave the task to individual senators or committees. But he has taken a personal interest in regulating the development of artificial intelligence, arguing that it is urgent as companies have already introduced human-like chatbots and other products that could alter life as we know it. He is working with another Democrat, Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, and Republican Sens. Mike Rounds of South Dakota and Todd Young of Indiana to speak with experts, educate colleagues and write the legislation.

It's an unexpected role for Schumer, in particular, who famously carries a low-tech flip phone, and for the Senate as a whole, where the pace of legislation is often glacial.

Senators average around retirement age and aren't known for their mastery of high-tech. They've been mocked in recent years for basic questions at hearings — asking Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg simple questions about how his platform works at a 2018 hearing on Russian interference, for example — and for a bipartisan reluctance to regulate the technology industry at all.

Schumer, along with several Republican colleagues, say the federal government can no longer afford to be laissez-faire with tech companies.

“If the government doesn’t step in, who will fill its place?” Schumer asked. “Individuals and the private sector can’t do the work of protecting our country. Even if many developers have good intentions, there will always be rogue actors, unscrupulous companies, and foreign adversaries that seek to harm us. And companies may not be willing to insert guardrails on their own, certainly if their competitors are not required to insert them as well.”

Attempting to regulate AI, Schumer said, “is unlike anything Congress has dealt with before.”

It is unclear if Schumer will be able to accomplish his goals. The effort is in its earliest stages, with the bipartisan working group just starting a series of briefings for all 100 senators to get them up to speed. In the House, legislation to regulate or oversee artificial intelligence has been more scattershot, and Republican leaders have not laid out any ambitious goals.

Schumer acknowledged that there are more questions than answers about the technology.

“It’s not like labor or healthcare or defense where Congress has a long history we can work off of,” Schumer said. “In fact, experts admit nobody is even sure which questions policymakers should be asking. In many ways, we’re starting from scratch.”

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