As the pros and cons of emerging generative artificial intelligence (AI) technologies have become a hot topic of policy debate in recent months, Congress appears to be just lining up at the starting gate with its own efforts to explore possible regulation of the technology.

That was a key takeaway from a discussion today at the AWS Summit in Washington, where Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., and Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., talked about efforts in both chambers to first educate members about AI, and then to consider possible regulatory courses. Both are members of the AI caucuses in their chambers of Congress.

In the Senate, the latest steps on educating members emerged this week in the form of a briefing schedule released by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., Sen. Rounds, and Sens. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., and Todd Young, R-Ind.

The senators plan three “senators-only” briefings on AI tech this summer, focused on questions including where is AI tech today, how to maintain American leadership in the technology, how AI is used by U.S. defense and intelligence agencies.

“The advances we have seen in Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the last few months have been astounding,” the senators said. “From helping the paralyzed walk again to allowing anyone to be a computer programmer, the technological breakthroughs are happening on almost a daily basis. As AI transforms our world, the Senate must keep abreast of the extraordinary potential, and risks, AI presents.”

“The Senate must deepen our expertise in this pressing topic,” they said. “AI is already changing our world, and experts have repeatedly told us that it will have a profound impact on everything from our national security to our classrooms to our workforce, including potentially significant job displacement.”

Both members of Congress agreed in their discussion at today’s AWS event that interest in AI technology – and the role of the Congress in setting up rules for its use – appears to be bipartisan.

“There’s nothing particular partisan about AI,” said Rep. Lieu. “Ted is right,” said Sen. Rounds. “It is bipartisan right now in the House and the Senate. We are working together [and] we recognize that we don’t have all the answers.”

The lawmakers also agreed that the stakes are high for how the technology develops.

“This is something which will change the way that we do business,” Sen. Rounds said. “And it’s going to change very, very rapidly. These [changes] aren’t going to be something that are going to happen in the future – they have already started and we are trying to do our best to literally begin to understand what it is.”

“It’s not going to go away, and it’s not a matter of trying to hide from it,” the senator said, “it’s a matter of how do we do a good job of protecting ourselves from the bad parts, but taking advantage of all of the opportunities that this country has to use the best and brightest minds in the world for the good of everybody.”

“Because if we don’t do it, our adversaries will be doing it and they’re going to be doing it as quickly as they possibly can. How do you balance those? That’s the public policy question that we’re challenged with today,” the senator said.

“I think it’s really something that’s going to be quite disruptive to society,” Rep. Lieu said of AI tech, adding, “for a lot of people, they just want to know where this is headed.”

“I’ve thought about this a lot … and my conclusion is I have no idea,” the congressman say, drawing laughs from the audience.

“By analogy, this is sort of like the steam engine, which was quite disruptive when it was invented. But in a few years, AI is going be like a supersonic jet engine with a personality, and I think we need to be prepared for it,” he said.

“It’s going to essentially eliminate a number of professions, it’s going to make some other professions more efficient, it’s going to create new jobs,” he said. “But it’s hard to know where this is all headed, especially when matching this with amazing advancements in hardware.”

“I think my constituents are anxious, they want to know what might happen,” he said. “I think the best thing is to be transparent and as a legislator, I want to make sure that we get all the inputs.”

Rep. Lieu earlier this year called for establishment of a bipartisan commission in Congress to better understand the capabilities and impact of AI, and introduced a non-binding resolution to that effect in January.

He said today that he’s “working on bipartisan legislation to create a blue-ribbon bipartisan commission to make recommendations to Congress as to what kinds of AI we might want to regulate and how we might want to go about doing that.”

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John Curran
John Curran
John Curran is MeriTalk's Managing Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.