UPDATED 22:22 EST / JULY 11 2023


US senators sound slightly overwhelmed at first-ever classified briefing on artificial intelligence

U.S. senators today discussed the rise of artificial intelligence at what was the first-ever briefing on the technology, and most of them sounded somewhat concerned about the future.

The senators listened to experts on the matter of AI from a list of experts and officials, including Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks and Arati Prabhakar, director of the White House Office of Science Technology and Policy.

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer acknowledged that Congress meeting to discuss AI was “uncharted territory.” He said AI “is not like appropriations or health care or defense, where we have decades of experience to lean on.”

After the meeting, Schumer said there need to be “safeguards” on AI, which he called “one of the hardest tasks that Congress has ever faced.” In June, Schumer unveiled his “SAFE Innovation framework,” a proposal for AI legislation that has some support from both sides of the Senate.

Much of the talk related to “keeping Americans safe,” whether it be fighting the rise of misinformation or protecting elections. But the senators agreed that legislating AI will not be easy and ensuring AI safety in regard to other countries will be nigh on impossible.

Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich said at least this issue at least “doesn’t feel particularly partisan,” so the senators are in a good place to discuss the issues of AI. He seemed concerned that politicians don’t understand AI or how it works, which is something that needs to improve if they are to legislate its use.

Republican Sen. Mark Rubio told reporters after the meeting that he doesn’t understand enough about AI, but he understands enough to know there must be “guardrails and practices around” AI so the U.S. “can maximize its benefits and diminish its harm.” Rubio acknowledged that now that the AI ball has started rolling, the development of AI is not going to stop.

“AI is not the kind of thing where, unlike some technologies from the past, it’s not knowledge-based and engineering-based,” said Rubio. “So, it’s not the kind of thing that you can confine to the national border. Some other country will still develop the capability that you’re not allowing in your own country, so I’m not sure it solves it from a global standpoint.” Rubio seemed more alert than others to the possibility of AI replacing much of the workforce. He admitted that this will likely happen, so now, during what is a “transition period,” we must “prep the workforce.”

Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine said he’s worried about AI harvesting data. “Anything that’s harvesting massive amounts of data, you can always potentially use the data incorrectly,” he said, adding that there are also “tremendous intellectual property concerns.” Although the senators agreed in a chorus that the road ahead will be difficult and it’s a road that needs to be constantly monitored, possibly with new laws around AI, some aired concern that too much legislation could hamper development in the U.S. as other nations surge ahead in AI.

“On the one hand, you don’t want to ignore risk; you don’t want to ignore obvious implications of technology,” said Republican Sen. Mike Lee. “On the other hand, you don’t want to squelch it through a regulatory system.”

Photo: Louis Velazquez/Unsplash

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