A congressman wanted to understand AI. So he went back to a college classroom to learn

April 12, 2024  

  • Congressional Reform
  • Blog

WASHINGTON (AP) — Don Beyer’s car dealerships were among the first in the U.S. to set up a website. As a representative, the Virginia Democrat leads a bipartisan group focused on promoting fusion energy. He reads books about geometry for fun.

So when questions about regulating artificial intelligence emerged, the 73-year-old Beyer took what for him seemed like an obvious step, enrolling at George Mason University to get a master’s degree in machine learning. In an era when lawmakers and Supreme Court justices sometimes concede they don’t understand emerging technology, Beyer’s journey is an outlier, but it highlights a broader effort by members of Congress to educate themselves about artificial intelligence as they consider laws that would shape its development.

Frightening to some, thrilling to others, baffling to many: Artificial intelligence has been called a transformative technology, a threat to democracy or even an existential risk for humanity. It will fall to members of Congress to figure out how to regulate the industry in a way that encourages its potential benefits while mitigating the worst risks.

But first they have to understand what AI is, and what it isn’t.

“I tend to be an AI optimist,” Beyer told The Associated Press following a recent afternoon class on George Mason’s campus in suburban Virginia. “We can’t even imagine how different our lives will be in five years, 10 years, 20 years, because of AI. … There won’t be robots with red eyes coming after us any time soon. But there are other deeper existential risks that we need to pay attention to.”

Risks like massive job losses in industries made obsolete by AI, programs that retrieve biased or inaccurate results, or deepfake images, video and audio that could be leveraged for political disinformationscams or sexual exploitation. On the other side of the equation, onerous regulations could stymie innovation, leaving the U.S. at a disadvantage as other nations look to harness the power of AI.

Striking the right balance will require input not only from tech companies but also from the industry’s critics, as well as from the industries that AI may transform. While many Americans may have formed their ideas about AI from science fiction movies like “The Terminator” or “The Matrix,” it’s important that lawmakers have a clear-eyed understanding of the technology, said Rep. Jay Obernolte, R-Calif., and the chairman of the House’s AI Task Force.

When lawmakers have questions about AI, Obernolte is one of the people they seek out. He studied engineering and applied science at the California Institute of Technology and earned an M.S. in artificial intelligence at UCLA. The California Republican also started his own video game company. Obernolte said he’s been “very pleasantly impressed” with how seriously his colleagues on both sides of the aisle are taking their responsibility to understand AI.

That shouldn’t be surprising, Obernolte said. After all, lawmakers regularly vote on bills that touch on complicated legal, financial, health and scientific subjects. If you think computers are complicated, check out the rules governing Medicaid and Medicare.