New Congressional task force looks to make sure it’s not left behind by AI advancements

Twelve members of Congress shave been appointed to a new commission to lead the House’s exploration of AI’s transformational opportunities.

Twelve members of Congress shave been appointed to a new commission to lead the House’s exploration of AI’s transformational opportunities and potential challenges. Their mission? To create guiding principles, recommendations and bipartisan policy proposals for the regulation of AI. One of those members joined Federal News Network’s Eric White on The Federal Drive with Tom Temin to discuss the task ahead: Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.)

Interview Transcript:  

Eric White We have been bombarded with hearing about the potentials of AI. And so I’m sure that as a member of Congress, you’re hearing from your constituents as well as their concerns and things that might be brought up if it is implemented fully. So how did this task force on AI all come together?

Don Beyer Eric, for a few years, there’s been an artificial intelligence caucus. Democrats and Republicans coming together once a month to just talk about AI, but no legislation was really moving. It wasn’t clear which committees had jurisdiction, wasn’t clear where there was really momentum behind specific pieces of legislation. So Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), back before the infamous vacation of the chair, had talked about forming a task force, never happened. And eventually, just a few weeks ago, speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) And Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) appointed these members very bipartisan, an even number of Democrats or Republicans. And we’ve met a couple of times already. Were now meeting every fly out morning at 9:00. And the goal is by the end of the year to present a completely written up report on AI and what Congress should be doing. And hopefully, Eric, on the way, we’ll also actually pass four or five or six foundational bills. Bills we can build upon in the years to come.

Eric White Yeah. What can you tell me about the discussions that you just mentioned? Everybody loves to talk about the divisions in Congress and everything. But this issue, you might have a luxury of everybody generally wants a safe thing, a safe, efficient way for AI to be implemented into everyday life. What are you all mostly discussing when you have those conversations?

Don Beyer Eric, it’s been interesting. In the first couple of meetings, I spent a lot of going around the room saying, what are your priorities? And they’re all over the place. For example, one Democratic member from New York had been very concerned about the use of AI delivering porn, especially with child sexual images. Where instead of the old terrible way of kidnaping children and forcing the reform porn in some garage, they actually generate it using large language models and stuff. It’s just as evil, but without an actual child in play. So you can get a lot more of it a lot faster, which is even sadder. On the other hand, you get people that are really concerned about deepfakes and what it will mean for elections this year. We all know that more people will vote in 2024 than in any year in the history of mankind. Oh, all over the world and very big elections here in the United States. So it varies, but you could boil it down into 12 main topics. And then the notion is how do you address each one of them? What role does Congress really have or federal government have in these 12 different areas?

Eric White And that’s a perfect segue into my next question of what is Congress’ role in this? Obviously, you have a vested interest in stopping some of the terrible things that can come from AI that you just mentioned. But as far as getting ahead of it and coming out with some overarching principles, is that where you see Congress’ enacting a role in working with other branches of government?

Don Beyer Yeah, very much so. So far, we’ve been really thrilled that there’s been little partizan bickering, very little partizan divide. There’s nothing like the divide we have on guns or on the right to reproductive freedom, things like that. So I’m optimistic about us being able to move forward. And on the role, it’s interesting the Europeans who the European Union have recently passed their EU Artificial Intelligence Act, the EU AI act. And they were, I heard it referred to recently, is that they are super regulatory power. They really like regulation. Our tendency, both Democratic and Republican, is to focus on innovation and creation and new uses that can change the way our lives unfold. So almost all of us, across party lines, want to have a relatively light touch from a regulation perspective, unlike the Europeans.

Eric White It’s interesting. Usually we’re trying to find ways to reduce red tape, and the Europeans tend to say, no, we need more red tape here. We’re speaking with Virginia Congressman Don Beyer. Congress has always been a punching bag for the American public. And they’re seen as sometimes being a little bit behind on when new technologies come in. And there are those viral clips of some of your fellow congressmen describing some things that maybe are off the cuff or out there. Where do you see as this is improving Congress’ understanding of AI? Because it’s a new technology and not too many people actually get with the facts of what it actually takes to create those deep fakes or actually have technology that will change Americans lives.

Don Beyer Well, the good part, Eric, is that while there are only a handful of actual technologists who serve in Congress, the 24 people on this task force, almost all of them are pretty sophisticated about AI across the political landscape. So I’m really encouraged by that. When Speaker Johnson and Leader Jeffries pointed, they were looking for people who already had expressed a deep interest in artificial intelligence and done a lot of reading and a lot of visiting, a lot of experimenting. So that’s a really good piece of it. And I also think while Congress always lags the American public, that’s because that’s the way our founding mothers and fathers set it up. It’s two different entities, the House and the Senate. There’s a filibuster in the Senate. You really have to spend a lot of time to get to a middle ground before something actually becomes law. And sometimes that slowness frustrates us. But it also can often be wise, because we’re not overreacting or doing something quickly and hastily that we later need to reverse.

Eric White Let’s talk about you yourself. You got appointed to this mostly because we’ve interviewed you before. You’ve taken a deep interest in AI, and even have taken some classes in learning more about the technology. What can you tell me of where you stand personally in your understanding of it?

Don Beyer I’m learning very quickly. I just came back from a four day AI conference with some of the smartest people I’ve ever met, and I had lots and lots of questions. And with every exposure, I learn a little bit more. By the way, having my coding background now, just in Python three and in Java, is also helping. No, I can’t be a huge AI scientist right now. I’m years away from doing that, but I have a good inkling about how they’re going about it and why, which helps. Although, ultimately, here in Congress in this task force, we’re not going to be writing any code. We’re going to be trying to come up with the right sets of policies for things like the democratization of artificial intelligence. We don’t want to just to be owned by the big four. By ChatGPT, by OpenAI and Microsoft and Google. We want to make sure that people like you and me also have access to it. The small businesses and medium sized businesses do it, and researchers everywhere. So the democratization is a big piece of it. And I also think that we have to look really deeply at the potential downsides. How many AI optimists? I think it’s could do much more good than harm. But as members of Congress, our job is to protect the American people. So thinking about the potential downsides is very important to you.

Eric White Providing me an opening to ask about those big four and the plethora of famous technologists that we’ve seen making the rounds on news programs, talking about it. Are you bringing in any sort of experts during these conversations with your task force, or are you just kind of reaching out on your own accord and then coming back and reporting to the task force?

Don Beyer It’s a really good question here, because it’s sort of in between. We have had, from Jay Obernolte (R-Calif.), who chairs the overall conference with Ted Lieu (D-Calif.). I think he’s been deluged with different people who want to come present to the task force, enough so that they can take up the next three or four years just listening to people tell us their ideas. So he’s going to be judicious in terms of the people we bring before us. But so far, it’s been the leaders of the big four, but also people like Dario Gil, who’s head of research at debt, at IBM. So some of the really great intellectuals and founders of this field are talking to us both in small groups and of big groups. Mark Andreasen, who is an early major technologist, has already come to talk to us. But we’re also hearing interesting, Eric, from not just the technologist, but people who’ve been affected by it. For example, we had one fascinating meeting with the folks that do photography and illustrations, and who write music and who published books, who are seeing artificial intelligence as perhaps taking all of their creative work and making it for free on the internet through the large language models. So what’s the business model that allows a photographer still makes a living other than at weddings?

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