Experts Concerned Over Lawmakers’ Warm Welcome to OpenAI CEO Sam Altman

Experts Concerned Over Lawmakers’ Warm Welcome to OpenAI CEO Sam Altman

At a hearing on AI oversight earlier this week, OpenAI CEO Sam Altman was welcomed with a warm tone by lawmakers, who even asked him if he would be qualified to administer rules regulating the industry. However, this welcome has raised concerns among some AI experts who were not in attendance, who caution that lawmakers’ decision to learn about the technology from a leading industry executive could unduly sway the solutions they seek to regulate AI. They urge Congress to engage with a diverse set of voices in the field to ensure a wide range of concerns are addressed, rather than focusing on those that serve corporate interests.

Experts’ Concerns

According to Meredith Whittaker, president of the Signal Foundation and co-founder of the AI Now Institute at New York University, lawmakers’ praise for Altman at times sounded almost like “celebrity worship.” She cautioned that “it doesn’t sound like the kind of hearing that’s oriented around accountability.” Other experts shared similar concerns. Sarah Myers West, managing director of the AI Now Institute, said that the “laudatory” tone of some representatives following the dinner with Altman was surprising. She acknowledged it may “signal that they’re just trying to sort of wrap their heads around what this new market even is,” but added, “It’s not new. It’s been around for a long time.”

Safiya Umoja Noble, a professor at UCLA and author of “Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism,” said lawmakers who attended the dinner with Altman seemed “deeply influenced to appreciate his product and what his company is doing. And that also doesn’t seem like a fair deliberation over the facts of what these technologies are.” She finds it “disheartening to see Congress let these CEOs pave the way for carte blanche, whatever they want, the terms that are most favorable to them.”

Experts cautioned that the kinds of regulation Altman suggested, like an agency to oversee AI, could actually stall regulation and entrench incumbents. Margaret Mitchell, researcher and chief ethics scientist at AI company Hugging Face, said that Altman’s suggestion “seems like a great way to completely slow down any progress on regulation.” Ravit Dotan, who leads an AI ethics lab at the University of Pittsburgh as well as AI ethics at generative AI startup Bria.ai, said that while it makes sense for lawmakers to take Big Tech companies’ opinions into account since they are key stakeholders, they shouldn’t dominate the conversation.

Government’s Role

Several researchers said the government should focus on enforcing the laws already on the books and applauded a recent joint agency statement that asserted the U.S. already has the power to enforce against discriminatory outcomes from the use of AI. They also suggested that the government should pay greater attention to researchers in fields like social sciences, who have played a large role in uncovering the ways technology can result in discrimination and bias.

Noble said that community organizations, researchers, and people who have been studying the harmful effects of a variety of different kinds of technologies should be at the table when considering regulating the technology. She emphasized the need for policies and resources available for people who’ve been damaged and harmed by these technologies. Mitchell hopes Congress engages more specifically with people involved in auditing AI tools and experts in surveillance capitalism and human-computer interactions, among others. West suggested that people with expertise in fields that will be affected by AI should also be included, like labor and climate experts.

In conclusion, experts are concerned over lawmakers’ warm welcome to OpenAI CEO Sam Altman, cautioning that it could unduly sway the solutions they seek to regulate AI. They urge Congress to engage with a diverse set of voices in the field to ensure a wide range of concerns are addressed, rather than focusing on those that serve corporate interests. They suggest that the government should focus on enforcing the laws already on the books and pay greater attention to researchers in fields like social sciences. The inclusion of independent researchers would give them opportunities to make “important counterpoints” to corporate testimony.

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