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The who's who of the tech world meet with senators to debate plan to regulate AI

A mobile billboard is seen near the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday.
Tasos Katopodis
Getty Images for Accountable Tec
A mobile billboard is seen near the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday.

Updated September 13, 2023 at 2:32 PM ET

Nearly two dozen leaders of tech companies and other groups met Wednesday behind closed doors with U.S. senators as part of a broader discussion into how Congress can regulate artificial intelligence.

The panel featured Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla and X, the social media site formerly known as Twitter, alongside Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg. The two, often warring executives joined other tech leaders for the day-long meeting on Capitol Hill.

The gathering is part of an effort led by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and a bipartisan group of senators to craft groundbreaking AI law. In prepared opening remarks, Schumer said the tech leaders and others are part of a vital undertaking to set a foundation for bipartisan AI policy Congress can pass.

"But Congress cannot do it alone. That's why we brought all of you here today: We need to hear from you," Schumer planned to say at the first of his so-called "AI Insight forums. "We need help of course from developers and experts who build AI systems. But we also need help from those who are asking tough questions, who care about developing safeguards to minimize AI's risks."

Schumer went onto argue that skeptics from inside and outside the industry, including leaders of labor and civil rights groups, must be part of the conversation. He also planned to tell the group that innovation and safety must both be prioritized.

'A historic panel' and a 'thoughtful conversation'

Senators leaving the first session said the meeting marked a historic panel, with one of the biggest gatherings of top U.S. tech leaders in recent memory. It follows a series of all-senators AI meetings earlier this year that provided a baseline of information, including a classified briefing.

The forums are broader in subject matter, with more forward-looking discussions on possible legislative paths forward.

New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker called the discussion a "thoughtful conversation."

"At the end of the day, everybody on the panel believes that government has a regulatory role," Booker told reporters after leaving the room for a lunch break. "And that's going to be the challenge, stepping up to the right regulatory role that can help protect us from the real issues that threaten our country and humanity."

The group of 22 tech experts met for two closed-door sessions held in a private Senate building meeting room.

Activists and some senators were concerned the meetings were closed off to the public.

"I do not understand why ... the press has been barred from this meeting, what most of the people have said is we want innovation but we've got to respect safety," said Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren. "That's important."

A day earlier, Warren had called for an investigation into Musk and his SpaceX's Starlink satellite system after claims he may have limited access for Ukrainian military. Warren said she was not able to confront Musk on the claims.

"They're sitting in a big round table, all by themselves, all of the senators are to sit there and ask no questions," Warren said.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said she also didn't understand why the meeting was closed to the public, but said it was helpful and historic. She said everyone on the panel raised their hand when Schumer asked them if they thought it was the government's role to regulate AI.

"We got all this input right now, right away," she said.

Leaders of entertainment, labor and civil rights groups were also slated to address senators, including the head of the Motion Picture Association, the Writers Guild of America West, the American Federation of Teachers and the AFL-CIO.

Other invited tech leaders include OpenAI CEO Sam Altman, Google CEO Sundar Pichai and the company's ex-CEO Eric Schmidt, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and IBM CEO Arvind Krishna.

An IBM spokesperson shared a preview of Krishna's remarks to the senators, which included a push for regulating AI risk but not AI algorithms, making AI creators and deployers accountable, and supporting open AI innovation.

"We should not create a licensing regime for AI," Krishna is expected to say. "A licensing agreement would inevitably favor large, well-funded incumbents and limit competition."

Ahead of Wednesday's meeting, AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler argued that workers must be central to AI policy.

"Public support for unions is at near record highs because workers are tired of being guinea pigs in an AI live experiment," Shuler said in a statement. "The labor movement knows AI can empower workers and increase prosperity – but only if workers are centered in its creation and the rules that govern it.

"Workers understand how to do our jobs better than any boardroom or algorithm. Bring us in as full partners in this transformation."

An uphill battle regulating AI

Despite the momentum, Congress faces an uphill battle crafting AI legislation.

Historically, lawmakers have struggled to regulate emerging technologies, from the internet to social media. AI is moving quickly, and Congress has a deficit of experts on AI, leaving many members to learn more about the technology as they simultaneously look to regulate it.

However, Schumer has argued they're doing the necessary work to catch up. New Mexico Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich and Republican Sens. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., and Todd Young, R-Ind. are helping lead that charge.

"Congress must recognize two things: that this effort must be bipartisan, and we need outside help if we want to write effective AI policies," Schumer said Tuesday.

That outside help, Schumer argued, needs to include industry developers, experts, critics and ethicists, and members from the world of academia, defense and more.

"All of these groups, together in one room, talking about why Congress must act, what questions to ask, and how to build a consensus for safe innovation," Schumer said.

Schumer also faces obstacles from within Congress, with members on both sides of the aisle trying to tackle their own proposals to regulate AI. Multiple congressional committees hold jurisdiction on the issue, and Congress has easily hosted more than a dozen AI hearings with many more to come.

This, as House Republican Speaker Kevin McCarthy has already argued against over regulation. McCarthy has said there's no need to create an agency to regulate AI, a popular idea among some Senate Democrats.

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Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.