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Senate grills leader at ChatGPT outfit on risks of AI proliferation

Both sides of the aisle voiced alarm about the potential dangers of AI amid a larger push to establish regulatory guardrails for the emerging technology.

WASHINGTON (CN) — For some members of Congress, the growth of artificial intelligence technology presents policymakers with a unique opportunity to learn from what they see as the failure to properly regulate social media.

“Congress failed to meet the moment on social media,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal during a Senate hearing Tuesday. “Now, we have the obligation to do it on AI before the threats and the risks become real.”

Amid calls from lawmakers in recent months for the federal government to rise to the occasion and regulate the fast-paced development of AI technology, the Senate Judiciary Committee grilled OpenAI CEO Sam Altman, whose company is behind a wildly popular AI-driven language model known as ChatGPT.

The mood was cooperative on the judiciary panel Tuesday, as both Democrats and Republicans expounded on the need for greater federal guardrails on AI technology.

Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, cited concerns from experts and lawmakers critical of AI technology who have worried that, despite the potential of AI to contribute positively to society, the risk of harm is equally great.

“We’ve seen them already,” the lawmaker said. “Weaponized discrimination, harassment of women, impersonation from voice cloning and deepfakes. Perhaps the biggest nightmare is a booming new industrial revolution [causing] the displacement of millions of workers and the loss of huge numbers of jobs.”

Missouri Republican Josh Hawley said the window is rapidly closing for the government to harness the innovation of AI technology for good. “My question is, what kind of innovation is it going to be? Is it going to be like the printing press, which diffused knowledge and power and learning widely … or is it going to be more like the atom bomb, a huge technological breakthrough whose consequences continue to haunt us to this day?

Altman, in his first public appearance before Congress, flung the door wide open for cooperation between industry and government to ensure AI technology is rolled out in what he sees as a safe and responsible way.

“We’re here because people love this technology,” said the OpenAI CEO. “We think it can be a printing press moment, but we have to work together to make it so.”

The U.S. government should consider a combination of licensing and testing requirements for the development and release of AI models, Altman suggested. That job should be done by a new federal agency designed specifically for such a task, he said. Companies should also partner with the government to establish a regime of safety standards for the developing technology.

“We think that regulatory intervention by governments will be critical to mitigate the risks,” Altman said, adding that he was optimistic that the U.S. could rise to the challenge and that the benefits of his technology outweighed the potential dangers.

Following his opening statement, Altman spent his time fielding, in soft-spoken fashion, lawmakers’ specific concerns about the effects of burgeoning AI capabilities on intellectual property, the military and election misinformation — which he said was a particular area of concern for his company.

The OpenAI CEO also pushed back on claims by some critics that the current spate of AI technologies could push some human workers out of certain jobs. Generative language models such as ChatGPT are tools used by humans, not creatures capable of operating on their own, Altman reasoned.

While he also acknowledged that the possible AI revolution of the future could impact jobs, Altman placed the burden of mitigating those effects largely on lawmakers — softening his remarks with a prediction that jobs subsumed by AI would be replaced.

“As this technology advances, we understand that people are anxious about how it could change the way we live,” Altman said. “We are too. But we believe that we can and must work together to identify and manage the potential downsides, so that we can all enjoy the tremendous offsets.”

Against the breakneck speed at which the realm of AI technology is moving, Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin advised his colleagues Tuesday not to trip over their own feet while setting up guardrails. Praising the bipartisan approach to AI regulation, he urged that Congress take things slowly as it tackles the issue.

“When you look at the record of Congress in dealing with innovation, technology and rapid change, we’re not designed for that,” the Illinois Democrat said. “In fact, the Senate was not created for that purpose, but to slow things down, take a harder look at it, don’t react to public sentiment and make sure you’re doing the right thing.”

Congress has already taken some initial steps to get the ball rolling on AI regulation. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer introduced legislation in April that would stand up a broad framework of oversight policy for the developing technology.

AI experts have previously warned lawmakers not to allow Big Tech to take the reins of its own regulation, which some have posed as a key failure in establishing guardrails for social media companies. During a March hearing before the House Committee on Oversight, Aleksander Mądry, an AI researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, cautioned that tech companies have different priorities than the federal government when it comes to developing artificial intelligence.

“The hope here is that we don’t use the same playbook we used for social media,” Mądry said at the time. “If that doesn’t change, I’m extremely worried.”

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