Kicking off a series of AI hearings Tuesday, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) used a text-to-voice generator trained on hours of his speeches to deliver an opening statement before OpenAI CEO Sam Altman. 

Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee voiced urgency (or had a computer do it for them) about regulating artificial intelligence during the hearing. But they struck a largely friendly tone with Altman, who supported many of the same reforms they proposed. For his part, Altman latched onto the idea of Congress creating a new agency tasked with regulating artificial intelligence and licensing its development by larger companies. 

“We believe that the benefits of the tools we have deployed so far vastly outweigh the risks,” Altman said in his opening testimony. “However, we think that regulatory intervention by governments will be critical to mitigate the risks of increasingly powerful models.”

“Congress has a choice now.”

Lawmakers’ apparent excitement contrasted starkly with their highly critical past questioning of CEOs like Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg and TikTok’s Shou Zi Chew. They appeared encouraged by Altman’s appetite for safety rules and occasionally thanked him for his testimony; Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) asked Altman if he would be interested in working at any regulatory agency Congress created. Instead of harping on past mistakes, senators seemed eager for the benefits that could result from AI tech.

“We need to maximize the good over the bad. Congress has a choice now. We had the same choice when we faced social media. We failed to seize that moment,” Blumenthal said Tuesday. “Now we have the obligation to do it on AI before the threats and the risks become real.”

Congress’ plan to regulate AI is still unclear after Tuesday’s hearing, which was just the first of several that lawmakers plan to hold over the summer. A new regulatory agency was discussed the most, but lawmakers ran other ideas past Altman, like making AI companies liable for the harms they inflict on users. 

“Having seen how agencies work in this government, they usually get captured by the interests that they’re supposed to regulate,” Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) said, taking a line similar to his position on other tech companies. “Why don’t we just let people sue you?”

Some lawmakers have already introduced bills to restrict the use of AI across industries. Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-NY) put out a bill requiring new disclosures in political ads that use AI-generated content. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) put out companion legislation in the Senate ahead of the hearing. 

Congress’ push to regulate AI follows a handful of moves from both the White House and federal agencies. Earlier this month, Altman and the CEOs of Google, Microsoft, and Nvidia met with Vice President Kamala Harris at the White House to discuss the development of responsible AI. The White House has put out requests from the industry to prevent harms like discrimination in the past, putting out an “AI Bill of Rights” last year. 

Regulators have also started to focus on how they could better regulate the industry. In April, the Federal Trade Commission, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Justice Department, and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued a joint statement warning companies that they already had the authority to go after them when their products harm users — whatever steps Congress ultimately takes. 

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