On Wednesday, US Senator Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) hosted an "AI Insight Forum" in the Senate's office building about potential AI regulation. Attendees included billionaires and modern-day industry titans such as Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, OpenAI's Sam Altman, and Jensen Huang of Nvidia. But this heavily corporate guest list—with 14 out of 22 being CEOs—had some scratching their heads.
"This is the room you pull together when your staffers want pictures with tech industry AI celebrities. It's not the room you'd assemble when you want to better understand what AI is, how (and for whom) it functions, and what to do about it," wrote Signal President Meredith Whittaker on X.
The nation's biggest technology executives on Wednesday loosely endorsed the idea of government regulations for artificial intelligence at an unusual closed-door meeting in the U.S. Senate. But there is little consensus on what regulation would look like, and the political path for legislation is difficult.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who organized the private forum on Capitol Hill as part of a push to legislate artificial intelligence, said he asked everyone in the room — including almost two dozen tech executives, advocates and skeptics — whether government should have a role in the oversight of artificial intelligence, and "every single person raised their hands, even though they had diverse views," he said.
Among the ideas discussed was whether there should be an independent agency to oversee certain aspects of the rapidly-developing technology, how companies could be more transparent and how the United States can stay ahead of China and other countries.
"The key point was really that it's important for us to have a referee," said Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and X, during a break in the daylong forum. "It was a very civilized discussion, actually, among some of the smartest people in the world."
Schumer will not necessarily take the tech executives' advice as he works with colleagues on the politically difficult task of ensuring some oversight of the burgeoning sector. But he invited them to the meeting in hopes that they would give senators some realistic direction for meaningful regulation.
Congress should do what it can to maximize AI's benefits and minimize the negatives, Schumer said, "whether that's enshrining bias, or the loss of jobs, or even the kind of doomsday scenarios that were mentioned in the room. And only government can be there to put in guardrails."
Other executives attending the meeting were Meta's Mark Zuckerberg, former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates and Google CEO Sundar Pichai. Musk said the meeting "might go down in history as being very important for the future of civilization."
First, though, lawmakers have to agree on whether to regulate, and how.
Congress has a lackluster track record when it comes to regulating new technology, and the industry has grown mostly unchecked by government in the past several decades. Many lawmakers point to the failure to pass any legislation surrounding social media, such as for stricter privacy standards.
Schumer, who has made AI one of his top issues as leader, said regulation of artificial intelligence will be "one of the most difficult issues we can ever take on," and he listed some of the reasons why: It's technically complicated, it keeps changing and it "has such a wide, broad effect across the whole world," he said.
Sparked by the release of ChatGPT less than a year ago, businesses have been clamoring to apply new generative AI tools that can compose human-like passages of text, program computer code and create novel images, audio and video. The hype over such tools has accelerated worries over its potential societal harms and prompted calls for more transparency in how the data behind the new products is collected and used.
Republican Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota, who led the meeting with Schumer, said Congress needs to get ahead of fast-moving AI by making sure it continues to develop "on the positive side" while also taking care of potential issues surrounding data transparency and privacy.
"AI is not going away, and it can do some really good things or it can be a real challenge," Rounds said.
The tech leaders and others outlined their views at the meeting, with each participant getting three minutes to speak on a topic of their choosing. Schumer and Rounds then led a group discussion.
During the discussion, according to attendees who spoke about it, Musk and former Google CEO Eric Schmidt raised existential risks posed by AI, and Zuckerberg brought up the question of closed vs. "open source" AI models. Gates talked about feeding the hungry. IBM CEO Arvind Krishna expressed opposition to proposals favored by other companies that would require licenses.
In terms of a potential new agency for regulation, "that is one of the biggest questions we have to answer and that we will continue to discuss," Schumer said. Musk said afterward he thinks the creation of a regulatory agency is likely.
Outside the meeting, Google CEO Pichai declined to give details about specifics but generally endorsed the idea of Washington involvement.
"I think it's important that government plays a role, both on the innovation side and building the right safeguards, and I thought it was a productive discussion," he said.
Some senators were critical that the public was shut out of the meeting, arguing that the tech executives should testify in public.
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., said he would not attend what he said was a "giant cocktail party for big tech." Hawley has introduced legislation with Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., to require tech companies to seek licenses for high-risk AI systems.
"I don't know why we would invite all the biggest monopolists in the world to come and give Congress tips on how to help them make more money and then close it to the public," Hawley said.
While civil rights and labor groups were also represented at the meeting, some experts worried that Schumer's event risked emphasizing the concerns of big firms over everyone else.
Sarah Myers West, managing director of the nonprofit AI Now Institute, estimated that the combined net worth of the room Wednesday was $550 billion and it was "hard to envision a room like that in any way meaningfully representing the interests of the broader public." She did not attend.
In the United States, major tech companies have expressed support for AI regulations, though they don't necessarily agree on what that means. Similarly, members of Congress agree that legislation is needed, but there is little consensus on what to do.
There is also division, with some members of Congress worrying more about overregulation of the industry while others are concerned more about the potential risks. Those differences often fall along party lines.