US senators are proving slow studies when it comes to the generative artificial intelligence tools that are poised to upend life as we know it. But they’ll be tested soon—and the rest of us through them—if their new private tutors are to be trusted.
In a historic first, yesterday upwards of 60 senators sat like school children—not allowed to speak or even raise their hands—in a private briefing where some 20 Silicon Valley CEOs, ethicists, academics, and consumer advocates prophesied about AI’s potential to upend, heal, or even erase life as we knew it.
“It’s important for us to have a referee,” Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, SpaceX, and X (formerly Twitter), told a throng of paparazzi-like press corps waiting on the sidewalk outside the briefing. “[It] may go down in history as very important to the future of civilization.”
The weight of the moment is lost on no one, especially after Musk warned senators inside the room of the “civilizational risks” of generative AI.
As many senators grapple with AI basics, there’s still time to influence the Senate’s collective thinking before lawmakers try to do what they’ve failed to do in recent years: regulate the emerging disruptive tech.
Inside the briefing room, there was consensus on the dais that the federal government’s regulatory might is needed. At one point, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, the New York Democrat who organized the briefing, asked his assembled guests, “Does the government need to play a role in regulating AI?”
“Every single person raised their hand, even though they had diverse views,” Schumer continued. “So that gives us a message here: We have to try to act, as difficult as the process may be.”
The raising of diverse hands felt revelatory to many.
“I think people all agreed that this is something that we need the government’s leadership on,” said Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI, the maker of ChatGPT. “Some disagreement about how it should happen, but unanimity [that] this is important and urgent.”
The devilish details are haunting, though. Because generative AI is so all-encompassing, a debate over regulating it can quickly expand to include every divisive issue under the sun, which was on display in the briefing right alongside the show of unity, according to attendees who spoke to WIRED.
To the surprise of many, the session was replete with specifics. Some attendees brought up their need for more high skilled workers, while Bill Gates focused on feeding the globe’s hungry. Some envision a sweeping new AI agency, while others argue existing entities—like the National Institute of Standards and Technology or NIST, which was mentioned by name—are better suited to regulate in real-time (well, AI-time).
“It was a very good pairing. Better than I expected,” says senator Cynthia Lummis, a Wyoming Republican who attended the briefing. “I kind of expected it to be a nothing burger, and I learned a lot. I thought it was extremely helpful, so I’m really glad I went. Really glad.”
Like many in the room, Lummis’ ears perked when a speaker called out Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act—Silicon Valley firm’s favored legislative shield from liability for what users publish on their social media platforms.