Artificial intelligence is the subject of great hopes, dire warnings, and now — a congressional caucus.
Alarms about AI have been raised in apocalyptic movies and by some of the most pioneering minds in science and technology. Elon Musk, the Tesla and SpaceX CEO, said in July that AI is a “fundamental existential risk for human civilization.” Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking and others have also raised concerns about AI.
Countering the dire warnings, the bipartisan AI Caucus, founded in May, is aiming to educate the government and fellow lawmakers that advanced technology — from autonomous vehicles to other smart machines — is not evil and could improve people’s lives and boost the economy.
The co-chairs — Reps. John Delaney, a Maryland Democrat, and Pete Olson, a Texas Republican — spoke with NPR’s Robert Siegel about how they want the caucus to move forward.
On why they formed a caucus to address artificial intelligence
John Delaney: If you are outside of the government and you talk to people in business, academia, the nonprofit world, they’re obsessed with how the pace of innovation is really changing society, and we spend very little time on that here in Congress. That’s why it’s such a good opportunity for me to work with my colleague here and create a group where we can convene some of the best thinkers on these issues around the country to make these things more beneficial for our citizens in general.
Pete Olson: Several issues are involved in AI: … safety, cybersecurity, ethics, information security, data security, and on and on and on. Let’s educate people. Because my generation thinks AI, they think of 2001: A Space Odyssey. That is not the AI we know right now. And so our job right now is to educate our colleagues and come together and get this thing rolling because it is our future.
On Elon Musk’s warnings of AI disrupting jobs and even a war fought over control of AI
Olson: I think Elon is playing to the exact fears that John mentioned — change. He knows change is coming; he’s afraid of it. He’s very successful. I get that. But he went out there saying, “Wow, AI can take over the whole world. Bad things will happen.” That won’t happen. These are machines that are learning over time from activities they’ve done. They become sort of intelligent through that learning. This is the great value, great tremendous benefit for our country.
Delaney: The other way to think about it is … sure, we all think about the Terminator movies and we think about some drones that are empowered with artificial intelligence that could go off and kill 10,000 people in 30 seconds or something. But we have to realize between now and then, there’s going to be a thousand opportunities for human intervention in the programing and in the transparency and in kind of collective rule-making with the private sector and the government working together to prevent these things from happening. And as it relates to jobs, there’s no questions it’s going to disrupt a lot of jobs, but historically, innovation has always created more jobs than it’s taken away. So I tend to be a little more bullish on the long-term employment trajectory, even in a world with a lot of artificial intelligence.
On the liability issue with autonomous vehicles
Olson: That’s a problem that’s solved with education. The bottom line is this is much better for our future having those vehicles out there. Accidents that kill people would be much, much less. There may be some mistake and that’ll be settled by a lawsuit. But the bottom line is over time, these cars [will] be safer and empower people, particularly elderly, wounded people, people with disabilities; they will have their life back because they’ll have mobility — just one example of how AI is the future.
On what the AI Caucus wants to accomplish
Delaney: We’ve got a specific piece of legislation that I’m working with Pete on. It’s called the Future of AI Act, which would create a federal advisory committee at the Department of Commerce to examine AI. I think it’d be great if Congress was actually getting some smart reports from our government … about how the Treasury Department thinks this is going to affect financial markets; how the Department of Defense thinks this is going to affect weapon applications in the future; how the Department of Labor thinks this is going to affect employment. I’d love to see a situation where the various departments of the government were reporting on their best guesses as to how this will play out over the next five, 10, 25 years. … I think we in Congress can guide the government to put that kind of framework in place.
Yu-Ning Aileen Chuang is the Business Desk intern. NPR’s Emily Kopp and Art Silverman contributed to this report.