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In Senate testimony, OpenAI CEO Sam Altman agrees with calls for an AI regulatory agency


May 16, 2023
In Senate testimony, OpenAI CEO Sam Altman agrees with calls for an AI regulatory agency

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In his testimony today before a bipartisan U.S. Senate panel, in which he agreed with calls for a regulatory agency for AI, OpenAI CEO Sam Altman was not grilled, probed or interrogated á la Mark Zuckerberg in the late 2010s.

Instead Altman was hailed by committee chairperson Senator Richard Blumenthal of (D-CT) as an executive who “cares deeply and intensely”; greeted by Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) as a fellow Missourian (Altman grew up in St. Louis); called a “unicorn” by Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), referring to OpenAI’s nonprofit status (which is no longer true); and asked by Senator John Kennedy what regulations he and the other witnesses would implement “if you were queen or king for a day” — with a follow-up asking if Altman was “qualified to administer those rules.”

In fact, even one of the other witnesses at the session of the Senate Judiciary Committee subcommittee on privacy, technology and the law, longtime AI critic Gary Marcus, had to call on Altman not to sidestep a question about his greatest fear of AI technology (Altman replied that his “worst fear is that we — the field, the technology, the industry — cause significant harm to the world.”)

OpenAI and IBM showed a willingness to play ball

Perhaps Altman got such a soft touch — along with the third witness, Christina Montgomery, chief privacy and trust officer at IBM (who admittedly was interrupted several times)— because they both repeatedly agreed with the Senators on the need for AI regulation. Altman, for instance, called for a new agency, a set of safety standards and a requirement for independent audits.


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“OpenAI and IBM showed a willingness to play ball with regulators that we don’t usually see from tech companies,” Lindsay Gorman, a former White House advisor and senior fellow for emerging technologies at the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the non-partisan think tank German Marshall Fund of the United States, told VentureBeat by email.

Still, it was ironic to hear Altman say that “we need a new framework” that goes beyond Section 230 to regulate AI, and that empowering an agency to issue licenses and can take them away “clearly…should be part of what an agency can do.” Luckily OpenAI, which has already profited materially from a lack of AI regulation, has gotten this far without all that, right?

The lawmakers alluded often to their unsuccessful attempts to regulate social media, as well as their regret over Section 230, part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which provided online services immunity for third-party user-generated content.

“There is a deep desire among lawmakers not to have a repeat of Section 230 in this new phase two of the internet,” said Gorman. “Innovation without guardrails leads to uncontrolled harms and unaccountable companies.”

But, she added, while there was bipartisan unity among the Senate panel on the concerns AI poses, she pointed out that generative AI regulation is in a “pre-politicization” phase.

“Companies have not yet launched major lobbying efforts, lines of partisan division on AI have not yet been drawn,” she explained.

Signs of OpenAI’s true priorities

The testimony included a few clear signs of OpenAI‘s true priorities when it comes to regulation. For example, when Senator Booker lamented the “massive corporate concentration” of AI power in the hands of a few companies like Google/Anthropic and Microsoft/OpenAI, Altman’s response was noteworthy in its effort to place OpenAI’s power in a good light.

He said that there will be many people that develop models and that “what is happening on the open source community is amazing” — but that there will be a relatively small number of providers that can make models at the scale of a state-of-the-art LLM. That can be beneficial, he explained, because “the fewer of us that you really have to keep a careful eye on, on the absolute, bleeding edge of capabilities, there’s benefits there.”

Altman also finally said something that emphasized OpenAI’s primary mission: to “ensure that artificial general intelligence benefits all of humanity.” And effort to develop an AI agency that implements a licensing scheme, he said, is not for short-term AI concerns.

“Where I think the licensing scheme comes in is not for what these models are capable of today, because as you pointed out, you don’t need to a new licensing agency to do that,” he said. “But as we head…towards artificial general intelligence, and the impact that will have and the power of that technology, I think we need to treat that as seriously as we treat other very powerful technologies. And that’s where I personally think we need such a such a scheme.”

A senator called the hearing ‘historic’

Today’s hearing, Senator Blumenthal said, was “first in a series of hearings intended to write the rules of AI.” So it remains to be seen if future hearings will remain so friendly when it comes to regulating AI technology.

But in the meantime, Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) said he thought what happened today was “historic.”

“I can’t recall when we’ve had people representing large corporations or private sector entities come before us and plead with us to regulate them,” he said. “In fact, many people in the Senate have based their careers on the opposite, that the economy will thrive if government gets the hell out of the way. And what I’m hearing instead today is a ‘Stop me before I innovate again’ message.”

That is questionable — and Gorman pointed out that ultimately, AI regulation requires input from the public.

“This first hearing – which won’t be the last – laid the groundwork for that national conversation,” she said. “But the will to regulate is not the same thing as ability to do so. In the US we have heard loud calls to regulate social media for years, and bipartisan interest in federal data privacy legislation that have completely foundered on the altar of national division.  We’re exploring the art of the possible, but nothing is a foregone conclusion.”

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