U.S. Senate to examine AI’s wide-ranging impact, Schumer and Rounds say

By: - September 14, 2023 2:01 pm
Chuck Schumer and Mike Rounds sitting in large leather chairs on a carpeted floor.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., left, and South Dakota Sen. Mike Rounds, a Republican, talk to reporters in the Senate Daily Press Gallery on Sept. 14, 2023, about congressional action on artificial intelligence. (Ashley Murray/States Newsroom)

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and South Dakota Republican Sen. Mike Rounds said Thursday they’re part of a bipartisan and private-sector consensus about the need for government oversight of artificial intelligence on a range of issues.

Schumer, a New York Democrat, and Rounds held an informal bipartisan news conference Thursday to discuss the Senate’s outlook on AI, following a forum Wednesday with more than 20 technology and advocacy leaders. Schumer told reporters the Senate is off to a “a great start” in establishing a legislative approach to AI, a technology both senators said held numerous potential benefits but also presented a host of new challenges.

Partly because of the range of affected areas — elections, defense, health care, labor, intellectual property, data privacy and others — AI is “one of the hardest issues we will ever tackle,” Schumer said.

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AI refers to advanced software or machines that are capable of learning, making them capable of imitating human thinking and problem-solving. The recent growth of ChatGPT, a “generative AI” device that can generate its own content, has sparked wider interest in the technology.

About 70 senators attended Wednesday’s forum, which was closed to the press, Schumer said. The industry leaders reached an early consensus that government should play some role in the technology’s development, he said.

The senators on Thursday described AI as a wide-ranging issue that would impact every part of society for decades to come.

“AI is probably going to affect this generation and the next generation more than just about any issue that we will have to deal with,” Schumer said.

Elections a priority

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Because of how many different issues intersect with AI, it’s likely impractical to devise a universal policy around the technology, Schumer said.

Congress’ approach, then, may be to take a piecemeal approach and set rules for AI involvement in individual issues.

Election interference may be among the first, he said.

“We’d like to do everything at once,” Schumer said. But the “difficulty and the enormity of the task may not allow us to do that. Some things may have to go sooner than others and elections is one of the things that we may have to try to do soonest.”

Rounds said he couldn’t speak for other Republicans, but agreed on the need to prioritize elections. Foreign adversaries and other bad actors could use AI to create fraudulent images and videos or otherwise meddle in elections.

“We’re going to have to do everything we can to make sure that those elections absolutely are fair and misinformation is identified,” he said. “How you go about doing that, with an agreement by both sides, is going to be a real challenge. First Amendment rights are critical. But make sure that if somebody’s going to implicate or play games or make clearly illusionary messages, there’s got to be a way in this society to address it.”

Speed v. deliberation

The Senate will have to balance the need to quickly establish rules in a fast-growing technology, while also taking time to be as thoughtful as possible, Schumer said.

“If you move too slowly, the horse is out of the barn,” he said. “But if you move too quickly, you may screw it up.”

Some senators at Wednesday’s meeting called for a new federal agency to regulate AI.

“Today’s forum reinforced that we need a new, independent agency to regulate AI and social media,” Sen. Michael Bennet, a Colorado Democrat, said in a statement Wednesday. “This will best enable us to engage with new technologies while mitigating potential harms. Big Tech has written its own rules for too long.”

There did not appear to be consensus for that step Thursday, but Rounds said the breadth of the impacts of AI would require several different federal agencies and Senate committees to quickly gain expertise on the technology. There was a suggestion during the closed-door meeting that a single federal body could be responsible for gathering and developing experts to advise others, he said.

“One of the suggestions was, maybe you should be developing the experts that then can advise all of these agencies or these committees,” he said. “Our national labs have got experts. A lot of the universities have got experts. Is there a way we can put together a body of these folks to actually help us understand it as we look at the policy implications, committee-by-committee?”

Next steps

At least while Congress remains in the information-gathering stage, AI has not seen the partisan division that plagues other major national issues.

New Mexico Democrat Martin Heinrich and Indiana Republican Todd Young helped Schumer and Rounds organize Wednesday’s forum. Republican leaders in both chambers, Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell in the Senate and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy of California, both expressed support for the Senate’s effort, Schumer and Rounds said.

This week marked the Senate’s first coordinated move to examine AI. In addition to Wednesday’s forum, two committees held hearings on the subject Tuesday and Schumer offered floor remarks throughout the week.

The White House, too, has been working on the issue, announcing new commitments from key companies to respect certain guidelines.

Schumer and Rounds said they’d try to hold more meetings like Wednesday’s. At least some would likely have open press access, they said.

The next meeting, which the senators would soon announce a date for, will be on examining the benefits and potential pitfalls of the technology, Schumer said.

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Jacob Fischler
Jacob Fischler

Jacob covers federal policy as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. Based in Oregon, he focuses on Western issues. His coverage areas include climate, energy development, public lands and infrastructure.

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