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Sen. Schumer hopes legislation regulating AI can pass a divided Congress

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Tech industry leaders gathered in Washington this week to talk about artificial intelligence and ways to keep it under control. Congress is busy with much more short-term matters, like a self-imposed crisis over funding the government 16 days from now. So can lawmakers address a long-term question like AI? Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer says he's hopeful. He spoke with NPR congressional correspondent Claudia Grisales.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer pulled off a historic feat this week. A group of the world's biggest tech leaders came to Capitol Hill for a private talk on the risks and possibilities of artificial intelligence. Schumer says Congress needs to dive in and regulate AI.

CHUCK SCHUMER: So the normal inclination of a legislator would be let someone else do it, I'm not going to get involved. But I felt an obligation to get involved, 'cause if we don't do something about AI, much worse things could happen.

GRISALES: Schumer and a bipartisan group of senators have made it their mission to start crafting comprehensive AI policy.

SCHUMER: Now, we have a long way to go. This is one of the most difficult tasks that I've ever undertaken as a legislator. But we couldn't be like ostriches - put our heads in the sand and ignored it.

GRISALES: For several hours, Tesla and X CEO Elon Musk, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg and philanthropist and ex-Microsoft CEO Bill Gates joined other tech giants to talk with senators. Musk has issued dire warnings of AI's threats to humanity.

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ELON MUSK: The consequences of AI going wrong are severe, so we have to be proactive rather than reactive.

GRISALES: But Musk was upbeat.

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MUSK: I think something good will come of this. This - I think this meeting may go down in history as being very important for the future of civilization.

GRISALES: But Congress has done this dance before. Stakeholders sing the praises of regulation and start on legislation only to fall short. But Schumer says they have no choice but to move full speed ahead.

SCHUMER: I mean, the bottom line is when other major changes in society occurred and Congress ducked them, it worked out to the detriment.

GRISALES: Social media, the internet and privacy issues are reminders of Congress' failure to regulate emerging tech. Plus, there's a lack of expertise in law and technology on Capitol Hill and a House chamber that's on a very different path. Here's House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

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KEVIN MCCARTHY: AI can help government save money, provide a greater service, be more efficient. I'm always looking for improvements, and that's where AI can be.

GRISALES: McCarthy is against a new regulatory agency overseeing AI, which is a key part of the Senate discussions. Schumer says he talked to McCarthy in July and he was, quote, "enthusiastic" about an AI insight forum featuring top tech execs.

SCHUMER: He said it was a good idea, and he thought the House ought to do something on AI, as well.

GRISALES: But because of a divide between the Senate and House Republicans, Congress is staring down the potential of a government shutdown later this month. And McCarthy moved forward this week with an impeachment inquiry against President Biden. But Schumer says it's not the Senate that has a problem getting things done across the aisle.

SCHUMER: The Senate is working very well in a bipartisan way. We don't want to have a government shutdown. The problem there is in the House where you have a bunch of hard-right people who almost want a shutdown, even though it hurts the country and probably hurts their party.

GRISALES: But as the House and the Senate operate in different universes of legislative priorities, Schumer says AI regulation is too important to ignore.

SCHUMER: We're not going to let that interfere with the bipartisan work we must do on artificial intelligence.

GRISALES: But even a gathering of the world's brightest minds in tech may not be enough to guarantee that this Congress can come together for ambitious AI policy.

Claudia Grisales, NPR News, the Capitol.

(SOUNDBITE OF KEITH JARRETT'S "THE RICH (AND THE POOR)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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