As A.I. Booms, Lawmakers Struggle to Understand the Technology

As A.I. Booms, Lawmakers Struggle to Understand the Technology

Tech innovations are again racing ahead of Washington’s ability to regulate them, lawmakers and A.I. experts said.Ted Lieu sets at the desk in his office, an open laptop computer in front of him.

Representative Ted Lieu met in January with the head of OpenAI, the lab that developed ChatGPT.Credit…Alyssa Schukar for The New York Times

Cecilia Kang and

Cecilia Kang covers tech policy from Washington, and Adam Satariano reports on tech from London.

In recent weeks, two members of Congress have sounded the alarm over the dangers of artificial intelligence.

Representative Ted Lieu, Democrat of California, wrote in a guest essay in The New York Times in January that he was “freaked out” by the ability of the ChatGPT chatbot to mimic human writers. Another Democrat, Representative Jake Auchincloss of Massachusetts, gave a one-minute speech — written by a chatbot — calling for regulation of A.I.

But even as lawmakers put a spotlight on the technology, few are taking action on it. No bill has been proposed to protect individuals or thwart the development of A.I.’s potentially dangerous aspects. And legislation introduced in recent years to curb A.I. applications like facial recognition have withered in Congress.

The problem is that most lawmakers do not even know what A.I. is, said Representative Jay Obernolte, a California Republican and the only member of Congress with a master’s degree in artificial intelligence.

“Before regulation, there needs to be agreement on what the dangers are, and that requires a deep understanding of what A.I. is,” he said. “You’d be surprised how much time I spend explaining to my colleagues that the chief dangers of A.I. will not come from evil robots with red lasers coming out of their eyes.”

The inaction over A.I. is part of a familiar pattern, in which technology is again outstripping U.S. rule-making and regulation. Lawmakers have long struggled to understand new innovations, once describing the internet as a “ series of tubes.” For just as long, companies have worked to slow down regulations, saying the industry needs few roadblocks as the United States competes with China for tech leadership.

That means Washington is taking a hands-off stance as an A.I. boom has gripped Silicon Valley, with Microsoft, Google, Amazon and Meta racing one another to develop the technology. The spread of A.I., which has spawned chatbots that can write poetry and cars that drive themselves, has provoked a debate over its limits, with some fearing that the technology can eventually replace humans in jobs or even become sentient. 

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