Tech titans including Musk, Zuckerberg gather on Capitol Hill to talk AI
The Washington Post September 13, 2023
WASHINGTON — Tech titans locked in a corporate arms race to dominate the future of artificial intelligence huddled with senators and some of their most prominent critics at an unprecedented Capitol Hill meeting Wednesday, as lawmakers seek AI leaders’ input on legislation governing the evolving technology.
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) hosted the AI Insight Forum — which is intended to serve as the bedrock for his “all hands on deck” plan to respond to recent AI advances — in the grand Kennedy Caucus Room, the historic stage of Senate probes into the sinking of the Titanic, as well as Watergate. Schumer sat in the center of a long dais, flanked by more than 20 leaders including Tesla CEO and X owner Elon Musk, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Google CEO Sundar Pichai and ChatGPT-maker OpenAI CEO Sam Altman, other top tech executives, civil rights leaders, labor chiefs and researchers.
Schumer planned to kick off the meeting with a call to action for the senators, warning them that “only Congress can do the job” of passing legislation that can harness the benefits of AI while limiting its risks. He warned the lawmakers against ignoring AI, saying they can’t behave like ostriches with “heads in the sand.”
The forum “is truly unique, and it needs to be unique, because tackling AI is a unique, once-in-a-kind undertaking,” Schumer planned to say to open the meeting, according to prepared remarks. “Because today, we begin an enormous and complex and vital undertaking: building a foundation for bipartisan AI policy that Congress can pass.”
But some lawmakers expressed consternation that the meeting was closed-door, diverging from past public hearings with tech executives. Individual senators were not able to ask questions during the morning session, which was moderated by Schumer, said Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)
“The people of Massachusetts did not send me here not to ask questions,” the senator told reporters. “There’s no interaction, no bumping each against each other on any of these issues.”
Tech executives largely positioned themselves as supportive of Congress taking action to address the risks of AI. Musk told reporters as he left the forum he thinks there will eventually be a regulatory agency that oversees AI, much like the FCC oversees communications. AI is a “question of civilizational risk,” saying that it is “potentially risky for all humans everywhere.”
“We don’t want to be in that situation where we’re fighting regulations even though there’s a safety thing,” Musk said, comparing adding safeguards for AI to the pushback decades ago over adding seat belts to cars.
In recent months, the launch of ChatGPT and other generative AI that can craft surprisingly humanlike images and text sparked a worldwide movement to regulate and rein in the tech before it gets too far ahead. The new scrutiny is palpable in Washington, where President Biden has hosted a number of AI meetings with Silicon Valley leaders and congressional committees this year alone have held at least 10 hearings on AI, covering issues ranging from national security to human rights.
In the most high-profile hearing to date, Altman appeared before Congress for the first time in May to deliver a sobering account of how artificial intelligence could “cause significant harm to the world.”
Hundreds of tech executives and researchers have signed letters and statements warning about the potential dangers of AI, even calling for better regulation of themselves. And lawmakers have unveiled a flurry of AI legislation: On Tuesday, a bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill that would ban using generative AI to falsely depict federal candidates in political ads.
Still, Congress is far behind other governments around the world eager to chart the regulatory path for artificial intelligence. The European Union is expected to reach a deal this year on its AI Act, which aims to protect consumers from potentially dangerous applications of artificial intelligence. China in July released its own rules for generative AI, which requires the technology to abide by the socialist ideology governing most aspects of daily life.
In Washington, lawmakers have tried for more than five years to rein in the power of Silicon Valley. To date, they have not passed a single comprehensive law to protect data privacy, regulate social media or promote fair competition by the tech giants despite numerous congressional hearings spent grilling tech executives about the role of social media in election manipulation, potential abuses of user data and allegedly monopolistic behaviors.
Lawmakers, industry leaders, civil rights leaders and tech industry advocates say the United States can’t afford a repeat of Congress’s approach to crafting social media legislation, which became mired in partisan battles, industry lobbying and competing congressional priorities, especially because of AI’s unique potential to discriminate and its critical role in national security.
Wednesday’s session was starkly different from past congressional hearings on tech, where lawmakers often found themselves under public scrutiny for gaffes that exposed their lack of tech expertise. It will be mostly closed to the press, in an attempt to permit more candid conversation and limit grandstanding common at high-profile public hearings.
Wednesday’s session was open to all 100 senators. Roughly two dozen lawmakers — mostly Democrats — appeared to be present at the start of the morning session.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), an outspoken critic of the tech giants who is drafting bipartisan AI legislation, called the close-door session a “giant cocktail party” for Big Tech and said he was concerned Schumer’s legislative efforts are “leading to nowhere.” He said he wouldn’t attend and that the nonpublic nature of the forum would “prevent senators from asking tough questions that the CEOs don’t want to answer.”
“I don’t know why we would invite all the biggest monopolists in the world to come and give Congress tips on how to help them make more money and then close it to the public,” Hawley said. “That’s a terrible idea.”
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who has led attempts to pass new antitrust laws, stopped to talk to reporters as she went to attend the meeting, saying Congress needs a bipartisan AI bill. She said she submitted a question for Schumer to ask the CEOs and that she plans to soon host a hearing on AI and elections.
“The way we do it is bringing everyone together, and this is going to be a very interesting way to do it,” she said. “We’ve got to hear everyone’s views.”
Reporters and cameras swarmed tech executives as they filed into The Russell Senate Office Building Wednesday morning. Musk stopped to pose for cameras, while Altman took questions from reporters about his positions on AI policy.
Schumer started by moderating a three-hour session with the executives in the morning, and then after an hour-long break, Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) will ask questions. Schumer and the members of his bipartisan AI working group are expected to brief the public on what they learn after.
Tech executives have taken a collaborative tone as Washington policymakers express their fears over AI and consider new regulatory regimes.
“We need government to lead, and we look forward to partnering with you,” Altman planned to say, according to prepared remarks viewed by The Post.
Rounds said it’s essential to keep the AI debate bipartisan.
“If it becomes partisan to where we’re just at each other’s throats, then we won’t fix it,” he said during a Post Live event Tuesday.
But even the guest list could generate fireworks, thanks to the opposing views of many attendees — and some personal tensions.
For months, Musk and Zuckerberg have been sparring in social media posts about engaging in a potential cage match. When news broke that both executives planned to attend the Capitol Hill meeting, it became a running joke on social media that the Senate would become the venue for the much-anticipated fight.
Zuckerberg and Musk were sitting far apart from each other at opposite ends of the dais.
Some executives, including Altman, said they plan to advocate for a new government agency tasked with regulating AI at Wednesday’s event. But lawmakers have bristled at the idea, with some warning against such an expansion of government and others fretting that such an institution would be vulnerable to regulatory capture. Google has opposed calls for a single regulator, urging the government to divvy up oversight of AI tools across various agencies.
Wednesday’s event has attracted some criticism from prominent AI ethicists because initial reports of the guest list did not include any women, civil rights leaders or AI researchers. The Post first reported that Schumer had invited a number of prominent advocates and scientists, including AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler.
Still, some AI experts criticized the star-studded event as a photo opportunity. Meredith Whittaker, president of the encrypted messaging app Signal, told The Post that she was not invited to the event, but she would not have attended because she does not think she would be able to meaningfully inform the debate.
“They’ve gathered the leadership of the companies angling to dominate and profit from the AI hype cycle, whether by producing and deploying the tech or by bolting themselves on as auditors and compliance vendors,” she said. “I respect a few names in that room, but I fear that as usually happens they will have little influence given the significant power asymmetries, and will be used more to legitimize bad outcomes.”
David DiMolfetta, Danielle Abril, Nitasha Tiku and Gerrit De Vynck contributed to this report.