Because Congress is still regulating the technology like it was in 1970

Since March, Congress has held at least 10 hearings on AI in eight different committees or subcommittees. The Senate Judiciary Committee questioned the CEO of OpenAI, the Senate Armed Services Committee explored AI and defense, and the House Science Committee wanted to hear about the latest AI innovations. In other words, it was a bit of a disaster mainly because, unlike agriculture, financial services and other crucial areas of American life, the technology does not have a committee dedicated solely to regulating it. Even committees such as the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology or the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law do not have exclusive jurisdiction over the technology. As a result, several committees are throwing spaghetti at the wall in a real-time demonstration that Congress is simply not structured or resourced to do its job on AI or the other technologies that are shaping the lives of its constituents.

Committees allow members of Congress to investigate an issue, hold hearings, and develop legislation, creating a knowledge base that deepens over time. This structure allows committee members, with the help of experienced committee staff, to give sustained attention to an issue. All bills have to go through committee before making it to the Senate or House for a vote, and while we all knew about the flashy hearings we see on television, there’s a lot of daily behind-the-scenes work that goes on in committees. to continue the legislative process. Each session, the committees hold countless hearings, annotations and briefings that allow members to learn about policy, deliberate and identify partners.

The committee structure and process has evolved over time, but the last time Congress reorganized committee jurisdictions was in the 1970s, before the Internet existed. At the time, Congress decided it needed to reinvent itself to meet the changing needs of the country and passed the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970. The act led to the creation of new committees such as the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs. This reorganization was important because without a dedicated commission on a topic, things can get lost in jurisdictional cracks and it is much more difficult to get results.

This could happen with AI The alarm bells ringing about AI, including its misuse to spread disinformation or for other nefarious and discriminatory purposes, all point to the need for comprehensive federal regulation. AI watermarks, increased disclosure requirements, and mandatory security testing are just a few of the many options for regulation. But instead of organizing a concerted effort, several committees held hearings on separate aspects of the issue.

In addition to not having a dedicated technology committee, Congress doesn’t employ enough staff who are knowledgeable about technology policy (let alone the latest developments in AI) and who can advise members who lack that knowledge. In fact, Congress doesn’t employ enough staff, period. The House and Senate have several thousand fewer employees than they did in the 1980s, and only a handful have advanced degrees, let alone science or technology skills. This includes both personal staff, who support individual members, and committee staff, who support committees and are hired by the chair or ranking member. For example, staffing on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee decreased nearly 45 percent between 1994 and 2016. Hiring and salary caps, insufficient funding, and a hiring pipeline that doesn’t proactively seek skills scientific and technical are all to blame.

Lack of internal infrastructure hinders congressional access to outside experts. When inviting witnesses to testify in hearings, commission staff often rely on small groups of experts they already know, many of whom live and work in Washington. Indeed, this dynamic shapes the selection of witnesses in all committees. But on a topic like artificial intelligence, which has disparate impacts on different communities, it’s especially important that Congress listen to a wider range of experts and people with lived experiences. Lobbyists are also enmeshed in the process and are likely to know committee staff and often suggest witnesses who suit their clients’ purposes. Inexperienced staff are also more likely to be manipulated by lobbyists, as they may not have the same expertise in niche technology topics, thus limiting the flow of information outside Congress.

One clear solution is to create a dedicated technology committee in each chamber made up of technology experts. A dedicated technology committee could channel the enormous energy swirling around AI into a series of related hearings and legislative efforts, with the assistance of expert staff. Just as the agriculture committee has broad jurisdiction over that sector of the economy, a technical committee might focus on issues such as artificial intelligence, social media, broadband access, and content moderation, among others.

Sounds simple on paper. Each chamber can pass resolutions to create new committees. The critical point, however, is that reallocating committee jurisdictions is reallocating power, and existing committees may resist. Strengthening Congressional expertise in this way would also reduce the power of lobbyists, because staff would not rely on them for information and witness suggestions, which would inevitably present another hurdle. To overcome these obstacles, we must harness political will and a sense of urgency.

As a smaller step, Congress can create existing congressional support agencies such as the Science Technology Assessment and Analytics Division of Government Accountability Offices, or STAA, which help Congress understand emerging issues in science and technology. STAA has written several reports on different applications and potential dangers of AI In a Congress struggling with understaffed staff and committees, Congressional support agencies such as the GAO represent an important educational resource that members and staff frequently seek . While these are invaluable resources, they are not enough. An understaffed Congress tending toward a familiar pool of witnesses needs ongoing access to a diverse range of experts and stakeholders.

The GAO could further help existing committees and staff by creating and maintaining a network of experts who can talk about various aspects of AI Many parliaments are already taking similar steps. For example, the UK Parliament has a database of over 15,000 organizations that committees can turn to when exploring certain areas, and a dedicated public engagement team within Parliament uses the database to help committees find witnesses. Regulators around the world, including Australia, Brazil, Canada and Indonesia, are also creating dedicated technology committees with clear jurisdiction over the technology sector. Congress can follow suit.

The challenge of regulating social media that Congress has largely dropped the ball on presents a cautionary tale. There’s a widespread consensus that Congress needs to act now to regulate AI, but it can’t figure out how. Dedicated technology committees could help That.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy and society.

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