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‘A moment of revolution’: Schumer unveils strategy to regulate AI amid dire warnings

The Senate majority leader released his long-awaited framework for regulating artificial intelligence and said he would launch AI forums this fall featuring a variety of experts.
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WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer unveiled his long-awaited legislative framework for regulating artificial intelligence in a speech Wednesday, warning that “Congress must join the AI revolution” now or risk losing its only chance to regulate the rapidly moving technology.

Schumer, D-N.Y., also said that starting in the fall he would launch a series of “AI Insight Forums” featuring top AI developers, executives, scientists, community leaders, workers, national security experts and others. The discussions, he said, will form the foundation for more detailed policy proposals for Congress.

“Some experts predict that in just a few years the world could be wholly unrecognizable from the one we live in today. That is what AI is: world-altering,” Schumer said in a keynote address at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nonprofit bipartisan group focused on foreign policy and national security.

“We have no choice but to acknowledge that AI’s changes are coming and in many cases are already here,” he continued. “We ignore them at our own peril. Many want to ignore AI because it’s so complex. But when it comes to AI, we cannot be ostriches sticking our heads in the sand.”

In his speech, Schumer argued that AI can “transform life on Earth for the better” — from fighting disease and hunger to making lives easier and more efficient. But he also echoed the chorus of tech experts warning about its potential dangers, including worker displacement, misinformation campaigns and election interference that could happen as soon as 2024.

Political campaigns could deploy fake but realistic-looking video of Democratic or Republican candidates making distorted statements that could harm their chances, Schumer said. (For example, as former President Donald Trump was being arraigned in New York this year, fake AI-generated images circulated on social media that appeared to show him wrestling with police.) And chatbots can be used to send damaging misinformation to sway the opinions of millions of voters.

“AI could be used to jaundice and even totally discredit our elections as early as next year,” Schumer said, adding, “Without taking steps to make sure AI preserves our country’s foundations, then we risk the very survival of our democracy.”

Five pillars

Schumer said that during the first half of the year, he and his team have been holding discussions with more than 100 AI developers, executives, scientists, workforce experts and others to develop their legislative framework.

The “SAFE Innovation for AI” framework has five central pillars:

  • Security: Shore up national security by examining AI threats from foreign adversaries or rogue groups and ensure economic security for workers, especially low-skilled, low-income workers.
  • Accountability: Support the creation of “responsible” systems to address issues like misinformation and bias and support creators by addressing copyright concerns and protecting intellectual property.
  • Foundations: Require that AI systems align with democratic values at their core, protect elections, promote AI’s societal benefits while avoiding potential harms, and stop the Chinese Communist Party from writing the rules of the road for AI.
  • Explain: Companies should share how an AI system arrived at a particular answer in simple and understandable terms so users can better understand why the system produced a particular answer and where it came from.
  • Innovation: Support U.S. innovation in AI technologies that focuses on unlocking the potential of AI and maintaining U.S. leadership in the technology.

“Innovation must be our north star,” Schumer said. “But if people think AI innovation is not done safely, if there are not adequate guardrails in place — and the public feels that innovation will not be safe — that will stifle or even halt innovation altogether.”

Washington is scrambling to respond to dire warnings from AI experts, including OpenAI CEO Sam Altman, that the technology, left unchecked, could lead to human “extinction.” 

The alarm bells have caught the attention of top political leaders and policymakers. During his visit to the San Francisco Bay Area on Tuesday, President Joe Biden huddled with eight AI experts in San Francisco, including Jim Steyer, the CEO of Common Sense Media; Sal Khan, the founder and CEO of Khan Academy; and Tristan Harris, the executive director and a co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology and a former design ethicist at Google.

“We’ll see more technological change in the next 10 years than we’ve seen in the last 50 years — and maybe even beyond that,” Biden said. “And AI is already driving that change in every part of the American life.”

Also Tuesday, a bipartisan, bicameral group of lawmakers rolled out legislation, the National AI Commission Act, that would create a blue-ribbon commission of experts to study and evaluate the best way for the U.S. to regulate AI.

Reps. Ted Lieu and Anna Eshoo, both California Democrats, and Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., are teaming up on the House bill, while Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, will introduce a companion bill in the Senate. Lieu warned colleagues against rushing to pass legislation.

“I think it would be helpful before Congress does anything massive to at least get some expert advice and to be humble about this. And nowadays, there’s a lot that we don’t know,” Lieu said in an interview. “If we make a mistake, then we require another act of Congress to fix it. So I just think it’s better to be prudent.”

'A new approach'

Schumer has been in close contact with White House chief of staff Jeff Zients, who is leading Biden’s strategy on AI. And he has been hosting a series of bipartisan briefings to help senators get up to speed with AI. He has also formed a bipartisan AI working group, or “gang,” of himself and Sens. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., Todd Young, R-Ind., and Mike Rounds, R-S.D.

The bipartisan leaders of the Commerce, Homeland Security, Intelligence and other key committees will also be involved in shaping legislation. 

“Like many great undertakings in our nation’s history, we must move ahead with bipartisanship and cooperation,” Schumer said. “We must cast aside ideological hang-ups and political self-interest. That is the only way our efforts will succeed.”

While legislation typically goes through the traditional committee process, with months of hearings and markups and opening statements, Schumer argued that a novel approach is needed to meet the moment on AI. 

The AI forums will focus on a variety of topics, including copyright and intellectual property, national security, workforce and “guarding against doomsday scenarios.”

“AI is evolving so quickly — but also has such complexity — that a new approach is required,” he said, adding: “Hearings won’t be enough. We need an all-of-the-above approach, because that’s what AI’s complexities and speed demands.”