The Senate’s AI Future Is Haunted by the Ghost of Privacy Past

In short, the tentacles of US tech firms are everywhere—vaccines, food, cancer research, psilocybin centers, criminal justice reform, homelessness—the list could reach the moon. (Speaking of the moon, how could we forget commercial spaceflight?) And the AI boom is likely to further expand tech firms’ power and riches. Yet on Capitol Hill, some powerful Republicans are focused on one goal: ensuring American AI dominance.

On this front, Rubio generally sees any new regulation as a needless-to-harmful constraint on US technology giants and their AI experiments. One near-universal takeaway from the briefings is that America can’t afford to be number two.

“You’re dealing with a technology that knows no national borders, so even if we write laws that say a company can’t do that in America, it doesn’t mean some company in some other part of the world or some government in other parts of the world won’t innovate that, and use it, and deploy it against the US,” Rubio says.

Senator Mike Rounds, a South Dakota Republican and one of four senators who spearheaded the all-senators briefings, echoes this sentiment. “AI is gonna advance regardless of whether it happens here in the United States or elsewhere. We have to be advancing faster than our adversaries,” he says. “We have to advance it, but we also want to put in appropriate safeguards.”

Specifics remain impossible to pin down in most corners of the Capitol. Lawmakers are still taking in the potential of new language learning models, like ChatGPT and Google’s Bard, even as AI laps us all. Rounds maintains an openness to nebulous new parameters, on the one hand, but in a critical, fatherly way, he also faults Americans for signing over our data privacy.

“Here’s the deal, we voluntarily give it away,” Rounds says. “People don’t seem to realize that when they sign these agreements, they’re giving up a lot of their personal information.”

Recklessly handing over our data might be fine if it’s American tech companies that are grabbing it. But Rounds, like most lawmakers, decries the idea of giving our private data to Chinese-owned TikTok. It’s the one privacy matter everyone can agree on—excluding, perhaps, the 150 million US-based users the company claims to have.

“There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of concern about it by a significant amount of the American public, which is unfortunate because that’s helping to create the databases that eventually may be used against us,” Rounds says.

While Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and the others tried to steer the conversation around artificial intelligence clear of politics, AI now seems lodged in the age-old partisan debate that pits laissez-faire capitalism against Big Brother, which New Mexico Democrat Martin Heinrich says is regrettably shortsighted.

“We failed to regulate the internet when it was regulatable, and Republicans and Democrats today—for the most part—are going, ‘Holy cow, we subjected our entire teenage population to this experiment, and it’s not serving us well.’ So I just don’t think it’s helpful to get hardened,” Heinrich says.

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