Sen. Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut Democrat who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on privacy, technology and the law, opened the hearing with a recorded speech that sounded like the senator, but was actually a voice clone trained on Blumenthal’s floor speeches and reciting ChatGPT-written opening remarks.
The result was impressive, said Blumenthal, but he added, “What if I had asked it, and what if it had provided, an endorsement of Ukraine surrendering or (Russian President) Vladimir Putin’s leadership?”
The overall tone of senators’ questioning was polite Tuesday, a contrast to past congressional hearings in which tech and social media executives faced tough grillings over the industry’s failures to manage data privacy or counter harmful misinformation. In part, that was because both Democrats and Republicans said they were interested in seeking Altman’s expertise on averting problems that haven’t yet occurred.
Blumenthal said AI companies ought to be required to test their systems and disclose known risks before releasing them, and expressed particular concern about how future AI systems could destabilize the job market. Altman was largely in agreement, though had a more optimistic take on the future of work.
Pressed on his own worst fear about AI, Altman mostly avoided specifics, except to say that the industry could cause “significant harm to the world” and that “if this technology goes wrong, it can go quite wrong.”
But he later proposed that a new regulatory agency should impose safeguards that would block AI models that could “self-replicate and self-exfiltrate into the wild” — hinting at futuristic concerns about advanced AI systems that could manipulate humans into ceding control.
That focus on a far-off “science fiction trope” of super-powerful AI could make it harder to take action against already existing harms that require regulators to dig deep on data transparency, discriminatory behavior and potential for trickery and disinformation, said a former Biden administration official who co-authored its plan for an AI bill of rights.
“It’s the fear of these (super-powerful) systems and our lack of understanding of them that is making everyone have a collective freak-out,” said Suresh Venkatasubramanian, a Brown University computer scientist who was assistant director for science and justice at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. “This fear, which is very unfounded, is a distraction from all the concerns we’re dealing with right now.”
OpenAI has expressed those existential concerns since its inception. Co-founded by Altman in 2015 with backing from tech billionaire Elon Musk, the startup has evolved from a nonprofit research lab with a safety-focused mission into a business. Its other popular AI products include the image-maker DALL-E. Microsoft has invested billions of dollars into the startup and has integrated its technology into its own products, including its search engine Bing.
Altman is also planning to embark on a worldwide tour this month to national capitals and major cities across six continents to talk about the technology with policymakers and the public. On the eve of his Senate testimony, he dined with dozens of U.S. lawmakers, several of whom told CNBC they were impressed by his comments.
The panel’s ranking Republican, Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, said the technology has big implications for elections, jobs and national security. He said Tuesday’s hearing marked “a critical first step towards understanding what Congress should do.”
A number of tech industry leaders have said they welcome some form of AI oversight but have cautioned against what they see as overly heavy-handed rules. Altman and Marcus both called for an AI-focused regulator, preferably an international one, with Altman citing the precedent of the U.N.’s nuclear agency and Marcus comparing it to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. But IBM’s Montgomery instead asked Congress to take a “precision regulation” approach.