WASHINGTON — A who’s who of tech tycoons are privately huddling with senators on Capitol Hill on Wednesday for a marathon brainstorming session about how lawmakers can regulate artificial intelligence.
Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Sam Altman and other tech figures arrived at a Senate building shortly before 10 a.m. ET, with Musk pulling up in one of his Tesla vehicles.
Inside the gathering, Musk warned senators that AI posed a “civilizational risk” to governments and societies, according to Sen. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., who wrote the phrase down in her notebook.
She said other panelists talked about the need for immigration reform to allow more high-tech workers in the U.S. and the need for standards reforms at the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
“You had everything from there to sort of the high-level comment about the civilizational risks associated with AI, which is a very 60,000-foot level remark, and it was everything in between, so I thought it was surprisingly interesting and helpful. And I’m glad I went,” Lummis said.
Altman, the CEO of ChatGPT parent company OpenAI, spelled out the seriousness of the moment as he headed into the forum.
“This is sort of an important and urgent and in some ways unprecedented moment,” Altman told reporters. “And that I think we really need the government to lead.”
Inside the cavernous Kennedy Caucus Room, the 22 panelists and hosting senators were seated in a U shape. On one side of the room was Musk, the CEO of Tesla, SpaceX and social media site X, and the wealthiest person in the world; on the other side of the room was Zuckerberg, the CEO of Meta who has clashed with Musk.
The daylong, high-profile gathering has its share of skeptics in both parties. Some senators lamented that the so-called AI Insight Forum is closed to the public and the media (reporters were briefly allowed inside the room before the forum began to view the set-up). Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said it would allow tech billionaires to lobby senators behind closed doors about one of the most critical issues facing the country and economy.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who organized the bipartisan gathering along with Sens. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., Todd Young, R-Ind., and Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., dismissed the criticism, noting that three public hearings on AI have been held and that the forums will also include labor and civil rights leaders, national security experts and academics.
And Schumer argued that doing nothing on AI is unacceptable.
“AI is going to be the most transformative thing affecting us in the next decades. It’s going to affect every aspect of life. It has tremendous potential to do some really good things: cure cancer, make our food supply better, deal with our national security, help our education. It has tremendous potential to do bad things: allow continuation of bias, throw many people out of work and even let some of our adversaries get ahead of us,” Schumer said in an interview Tuesday.
“When it’s something this difficult and this pervasive and this changing — it’s changing rapidly — the average instinct of Congress is ‘Let’s ignore it; let someone else do it,’” he continued. “There is no one else to do it. We can’t be like ostriches and put our heads in the sand, because if government doesn’t involve itself in putting in some real guardrails, this thing could run amok.”
Two tech executives warned senators at a public hearing Tuesday that an emergency brake is needed for critical systems run by AI, like power grids or water supplies, to protect humans from potential harms caused by the emergent technology.
In addition to Musk, Zuckerberg, Gates and Altman, the CEOs of Google, IBM, Microsoft, Nvidia and Palantir are on hand at Wednesday’s forum, along with the heads of labor, human rights and entertainment groups. They include Elizabeth Shuler, the president of the AFL-CIO; Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers; Charles Rivkin, the chairman and CEO of the Motion Picture Association; Janet Murguía, the president of UnidosUS; and Maya Wiley, the president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights.
Wednesday’s inaugural AI forum is scheduled to run seven hours, with a break for lunch. Schumer and Rounds will moderate the discussion, with help from Heinrich and Young, aides said.
Senators aren’t expected to get an opportunity to directly ask questions of the tech execs; the usually loquacious senators have been instructed to submit written questions.
“We’re just simply going to begin with some very broad questions to flesh them out and allow each one of them to come back and basically visit for a few minutes each about their concepts,” Rounds said.
“This is strictly for information,” he said. “This is to help our members get a broader sense of where these individuals affected by AI would like to either see regulation or opportunities.”
While organizers emphasize the bipartisan nature of the forum, Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., said it’s highly doubtful he’ll attend.
“I think the idea that it is some great breakthrough to hear from the biggest monopolists in the world — and that they are going to share with us their great wisdom — I just think the whole framework is wrong,” said Hawley, who announced a bipartisan AI framework with Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.
“You got to take it with a grain of salt. You got to realize that they’re interested parties, right? They stand to make a lot of money on this, which is fine,” he continued, “but you got to know that I just think the whole framing that ‘Oh, aren’t we so graced by their presence?’ — I mean, give me a break. These people are — they’ve done bad things for our country.”