Comment: Can Senate trust OpenAI chief’s pledge to work on guardrails?

Sam Altman agreed with senators regarding their concerns, but his duty is to his company’s success.

By Parmy Olson / Bloomberg Opinion

Technology executives who appear before Senate committees tend to be verbally whipped to the point of abject humiliation. Not Sam Altman.

On Tuesday, senators initially went after the OpenAI chief executive officer with questions about the terrors of artificial intelligence, from manipulating citizens to invading their privacy. To their surprise, Altman agreed with everything they said, and more. “Yes, we should be concerned about that,” he said gravely when Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., asked about how AI models could “supercharge the war for attention” online.

After Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., complained that Congress had been too slow to act on social media and didn’t want to make the same mistake with AI, Altman put himself forward as the healing balm. “I’d love to collaborate with you,” he told Durbin.

Durbin bristled again at those past experiences with Mark Zuckerberg. “The response from social media was, ‘Get out of the way!’” he grumbled. “I’m not happy with online platforms.”

“Me either,” Altman replied.

Altman’s first testimony before Congress was a master class in wooing policymakers. The 38-year-old CEO was articulate and clear. He didn’t use any of the techno jargon that others have used in the past, and he agreed with all the pressing concerns lawmakers had, ultimately diffusing their bluster. At one point, he declined an offer to become America’s top AI regulator. “I love my current job,” he said.

When you get past how strange it is for senators to praise someone who says their own technology could cause tremendous harm, you come to the question of what to do about all this potential damage, which the lawmakers naturally asked Altman for advice on. Altman said the United States should set up an agency, perhaps a global one, that would grant licenses for the most powerful AI systems. Gary Marcus, a computer scientist who also testified with Altman on Tuesday, said that agency could be like the Food and Drug Administration.

“I thought they were incredibly open to the idea,” Marcus told me by phone a few hours after the hearing. “In 12 months, I hope we have a national agency and are taking steps towards a global agency.”

Though I want to believe this — because it is not a bad idea at all — I am deeply skeptical. Firstly, the United States has a dismal record when it comes to passing laws to create new technology regulators, akin to what Altman and Marcus suggest. Despite all the bipartisan agreement over social media harms, and multiple bills over the years that have proposed new regulatory agencies to protect citizens’ data, there is still no federal privacy law doing any of that.

Secondly, Altman himself is a man whose actions speak louder than his words. He founded OpenAI in 2015 as a nonprofit organization with a mission statement to advance AI for the benefit of humanity, unconstrained by financial obligations. Six years later, it had morphed into a for-profit company with a close partnership with Microsoft.

That kind of pivoting shows Altman may be willing to do whatever it takes to achieve his endgame: building super-intelligent computers that can surpass human capabilities, which might also mean withdrawing his support for regulations that compromise that goal.

For all the self-flagellating the senators did over their failures with social media and their resolve to be different this time, the United States still suffers from chronic inertia in regulating tech. Altman, in other words, could tell lawmakers everything they wanted to hear, because history shows they probably won’t pass any serious reforms anyway.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said: “For me, perhaps the biggest nightmare is the looming new industrial revolution. The displacement of millions of workers, the loss of huge numbers of jobs, the need to prepare for this new industrial revolution in skill training and relocation that may be required.”

If Congress is serious about tackling some of the “nightmare” scenarios of a world where AI runs rampant, lawmakers should look at other policy ideas put on the table years ago.

The European Union, for example, proposed its 107-page AI Act in 2021, setting out rules for companies over things like the disclosure of copyrighted material (an issue senators complained at length about on Tuesday) and auditing algorithms that could infringe on people’s human rights. The European Parliament will vote on the act in mid-June.

The senators asked Altman about nutrition labels and scorecards for AI. Altman called that “a great idea,” although he didn’t have a concrete framework to propose. But researchers including Margaret Mitchell have been advocating for so-called model cards and processes for following an AI model’s paper trail for years.

“There is stuff around evaluation that I imagine is not going to be entirely supported by Sam Altman,” Mitchell tells me. In other words, real regulation would mean scrutinizing the data used to train AI models. That way, regulators could ensure that a tool like ChatGPT performs equally across different demographics such as gender and race. That would also force OpenAI to disclose its training data, something it has refused to do so far.

Mitchell’s work on evaluating AI systems wasn’t cited on Tuesday. And the E.U.’s AI Act got only a passing mention by senators; and not as a framework to emulate but a system to beat: “Europe is ahead of us,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. “We need to be in the lead.”

Such hubris helps explain why the United States ultimately lags behind on tech regulation. When lawmakers ignore groundwork laid elsewhere, preferring instead to grandstand about pioneering new policies in alliance with powerful technologists like Altman, they succeed in generating plenty of hype about their coming alleged accomplishments. But they risk achieving nothing.

Parmy Olson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology. A former reporter for the Wall Street Journal and Forbes, she is author of “We Are Anonymous.”

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