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Wednesday, June 21, 2023

Schumer launches ‘all hands on deck’ push to regulate AI in keynote address

Schumer launches ‘all hands on deck’ push to regulate AI in keynote address

“The Senate leader’s remarks are poised to trigger a wave of legislative activity

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) holds a news conference after passage of the Fiscal Responsibility Act on June 1. (Elizabeth Frantz for The Washington Post) 

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) laid out his early vision for regulating artificial intelligence in a keynote address Wednesday morning, kicking lawmakers’ efforts to both cultivate and control the development of AI tools like ChatGPT into high gear.

Delivering his most expansive remarks on the topic since the recent explosion of generative AI tools in Silicon Valley, Schumer unveiled a “new process” for fielding input from industry leaders, academics and advocates and called on lawmakers advance legislation that “encourages, not stifles, innovation” while ensuring the technology is deployed “safely." 

“Congress must join the AI revolution,” Schumer said at an event hosted by a D.C.-based think tank, asking lawmakers to act with both urgency and “humility” in tackling the technology.

The high-profile speech is expected to trigger a wave of legislative activity on Capitol Hill, where some lawmakers have called for swift action to check the rapid spread of AI across U.S. industries but where the pace of negotiations massively trails the European Union, which last week advanced a sprawling AI billafter years of discussions.

Schumer’s push represents one of the most significant efforts to craft new tech regulations led by leadership on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers have struggled for years to advance rules on data privacy, competition and other major legislative areas. His status as the highest-ranking Democratic lawmaker in Washington lends the effort added heft and could help lawmakers overcome political hurdles that have bogged down previous talks.

As part of the effort, Schumer said that he has called on the Senate’s Democratic committee leaders, including the chairs of key panels with oversight over commerce, homeland security and competition, to cooperate with their Republican counterparts to “get working” on bipartisan AI proposals. But he also announced plans to hold a series of “insight" forums this fall with top experts to solicit input on how lawmakers should move ahead on legislation.

The comments could kick off a sprawling push to craft new AI policies and guardrails across the chamber. Lawmakers have introduced a slew of proposals in recent years to set new privacy protections for digital services and to require companies to vet their products for biases, but the bills have gained limited traction. Schumer’s new focus on the issue could rekindle those efforts.

The comments arrive as policymakers across Washington race to develop a strategy to maximize the benefits of AI while containing its potential harms, which industry leaders and advocates have warned range from amplifying falsehoods to threatening human extinction.

The booming popularity of AI-driven chatbots like OpenAI’s ChatGPT and Google’s Bard has both captivated and concerned officials, who have said they are worried about again failing to protect consumers from the perils of Silicon Valley’s latest craze. It’s prompted lawmakers to hold a wave of public hearings and private meetings with industry leaders, researchers and advocates as they look to get their bearings in the quickly changing AI field.

While federal lawmakers for years have hammered social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube for purportedly undermining U.S. democracy and surveilling users with little discretion, Congress has been unable to pass any major regulations for the tech sector.

The lack of movement on legislation to set guardrails for emerging technologies in Washington stands in stark contrast to the activity in Brussels, where policymakers in recent years have enacted sweeping proposals on data privacy, competition online and content moderation, with new AI rules on the horizon.

Schumer said officials overseas have “failed to capture the imagination of the world" for what a government approach to AI could look like, and that the U.S. could still set a global regulatory standard that over countries looked to. And he said he will work on developing an “American” approach to harnessing the technology that stands in contrast to more restrictive proposals from U.S. rivals like China.

Schumer urged his Senate colleagues to “cast aside ideological hang-ups and political self-interest,” and work on a bipartisan basis to develop “comprehensive” AI legislation, a lengthy process that the Senate leaders and his allies have said could take months to iron out.

Details about what legislation Schumer will pursue remain sparse, and his timeline for putting together a legislative package remains unclear. But Schumer laid out five principles on Wednesday to guide lawmakers on AI legislation — including security, accountability and explainability — that expand on a “high-level” framework he first teased in April.

“It’s not going to be days or weeks, but it’s not going to be years. Months would be the proper timeline that I would give you,” Schumer said in a brief on-stage interview after the speech.

In a memo broadly detailing the approach, Schumer called it “an all-hands-on-deck effort in the Senate, with committees developing bipartisan legislation, and a bipartisan gang of non-committee chairs working to further develop the Senate’s policy response.”

The memo calls for requiring that “AI systems align with our democratic values at their core,” while supporting “the deployment of responsible systems” that tackle concerns about misinformation, bias and liability, support copyright holders and protect intellectual property.

In addition to discussing potential guardrails, Schumer questioned whether “federal intervention” is needed to “encourage innovation” in the space. The remarks signal that the Senate may consider new funding to boost research and innovation on AI.

“The ‘black box’ of AI systems and its ever-expanding use cases demand we invest in the research and innovation necessary to better understand how these systems work and how we can harness their potential for good,” Schumer added in the memo.

Schumer nodded to concerns voiced by President Biden’s antitrust enforcersand former federal advisers that large tech companies could come to dominate AI, saying in his address that Congress must ensure that “innovation and competition is open to everyone, not just the few big powerful companies.”

Schumer, who last week held the first of three planned all-member AI briefings, said his planned forums will consider how the technology could impact the workforce, national security, copyright, privacy and other issues.

“We need the best of the best sitting at the table: the top AI developers, top executives, scientists, advocates, community leaders, workers, national security experts all together in one room, doing years of work in a matter of months,” Schumer told a small crowd of researchers, consumer advocates and industry representatives at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.“

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