June 16, 2024

Mikayla Macfarlane

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Insiders say latest closed-door Senate AI meeting was ‘encouraging’

3 min read
Insiders say latest closed-door Senate AI meeting was 'encouraging'


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AI leaders who attended yesterday’s second closed-door Senate AI Insight Forum told VentureBeat the discussions were ‘encouraging,’ with Senators clearly taking seriously the many issues surrounding AI risks and potential AI regulation. They said that a total of around 20 Senators and 60 Senate staffers were in attendance for at least part of the event, including the four Senators hosting the event — Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Senator Mike Rounds, (R-SD), Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM) and Senator Todd Young (R-IN).

“I was encouraged by how constructive the senators were,” said Evan Smith, co-founder and CEO of Altana AI, a platform for building trusted networks on a shared source of truth for the global supply chain, who spoke to the senators about “the positive impacts” across law enforcement, national security, climate, and economic resiliency. “It was very clear that it was a good faith, bipartisan, constructive engagement across civil society and industry where the orientation was how we create a lot of value from this new technology and also put up some guardrails,” he said.

Yesterday’s forum focused on “transformational innovation that pushes the boundaries of medicine, energy, and science, and the sustainable innovation necessary to drive advancements in security, accountability, and transparency in AI,” according to a press release provided by Sen. Schumer’s office. The 21 attendees included a16z’s Marc Andreessen, venture capitalist John Doerr, Cohere CEO Aidan Gomez, former White House policy advisor Alondra Nelson, Max Tegmark of the Future of Life Institute and NAACP CEO Derrick Johnson.

Attendee Alexandra Reeve Givens, CEO of the Center for Democracy & Technology, said the framing of the discussion around “transformational” and “sustainable” innovation focused on how to make these products safe. “That framing was the structure of the entire conversation people engaged on both aspects of it, and it was a really robust conversation,” she said. “As a consumer advocate and a public interest advocate, I was very encouraged by that.”

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And Suresh Venkatasubramanian, former White House policy advisor and professor at Brown University, agreed that the “vibe was positive,” but added that he wished there had been more time spent time talking about specific regulatory frameworks. In addition, “the absence of a civil-rights focused forum continues to be a problem.”

‘Provocative’ debate did not dominate, AI leaders said

While some had wondered whether the extreme, polar-opposite perspectives of some at the forum would drown out others — such as Andreessen, who published the Techno-Optimist Manifesto last week, and Tegmark, whose organization is funded by the Effective Altruism movement — Venkatasubramanian said that was not the case.

“The expected issues came up but didn’t dominate,” he said, referring to discussions around topics like ‘existential risk’ while Givens explained that “luckily, the conversation in the room was more nuanced than that.”

While Smith said that Marc Andreessen “was provocative,” the discussion was “a healthy debate that I think is rooted in ultimately, shared objectives.” Smith added that there were “absolutely voices in the room” that were leaning harder into regulatory guardrails than he believes makes sense.

“I think the most extreme positions included things like creating a new federal agency to regulate and license all things AI,” he said. “I was heartened to hear some pretty firm and persuasive objections to that. What we don’t want is, you know, five or six companies to control the future of probably the most important technology we ever created as a species.”

More AI Insight Forums to come

In comments to assembled press after the forum, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said “we’ll continue this conversation in weeks and months to come – in more forums like this and committee hearings in Congress – as we work to develop comprehensive, bipartisan AI legislation.”

“There was a sense that senators want to do something and soon,” said Venkatasubramanian, who added that the Senate wants “to finish them before the year is out.”

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