June 4, 2023

The tone of congressional hearings with tech industry executives in recent years can best be described as hostile. Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos and other tech greats have all been stripped down on Capitol Hill by lawmakers angry at their companies.

But on Tuesday, Sam Altman, the CEO of the San Francisco start-up OpenAI, testified before members of a Senate subcommittee hearing and largely agreed with them on the need to leverage the increasingly powerful AI technology within his company and others such as Google and Microsoft.

The boyish-looking Mr. Altman swapped his usual sweater and jeans for a blue suit and tie, while providing a loose framework for managing what happens next to the rapidly evolving systems that some believe can fundamentally change the economy.

In his first congressional testimony, Mr. Altman pleaded with lawmakers to regulate artificial intelligence as committee members demonstrated a understanding of the technology, underscoring the deep uneasiness technologists and governments feel about the potential harms of AI.

“I think if this technology goes wrong, it could go pretty wrong. And we want to speak out on that,” he said. “We want to work with the government to prevent that.”

Mr. Altman made his public debut on Capitol Hill as interest in AI exploded. Tech giants have poured billions of dollars and effort into what they say is a transformative technology, even amid rising concerns about AI’s role in spreading misinformation, killing jobs and one day matching human intelligence.

That has put technology in Washington in the spotlight. President Biden said this month at a meeting with a group of AI company CEOs that “what you are doing has tremendous potential and tremendous danger.” Top leaders in Congress have also pledged AI regulation.

The appearance of Mr. Altman, a 38-year-old Stanford University dropout and tech entrepreneur, was his baptism as the leading figure in AI. AI technology,

Mr Altman said his company’s technology could destroy some jobs as well as create new ones, and it will be important for “the government to figure out how we want to reduce that”. He proposed the creation of an agency that issues licenses to create large-scale AI models, safety regulations, and tests that AI models must pass before they are released to the public.

“We believe that the benefits of the tools we have deployed to date far outweigh the risks, but ensuring their safety is vital to our work,” said Mr. Altman.

But after nearly two hours of questions during Tuesday’s hearing, it was unclear how lawmakers would respond to the call to regulate AI. They approached him as an educator.

Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat and chairman of the Senate panel, said the hearing was the first in a series to learn more about the potential benefits and drawbacks of AI and ultimately “write the rules for it.” He also acknowledged that Congress has historically failed to keep up with the introduction of new technologies.

“Our goal is to demystify those new technologies and hold them accountable to avoid some of the mistakes of the past,” said Mr Blumenthal. “Congress failed to catch the moment on social media.”

This is an evolving story. Check back later for updates.