The chief executive of ChatGPT creator OpenAI called on Congress to create licensing and safety standards for advanced artificial intelligence systems as lawmakers begin a bipartisan push toward regulating the powerful new tools available to consumers.

“We understand that people are anxious about how it can change the way we live. We are, too,” Sam Altman said of AI technology at a Senate subcommittee hearing Tuesday, his first appearance before Congress. “If this technology goes wrong, it can go quite wrong.”

Mr. Altman called for “a new agency that licenses any effort above a certain scale of capabilities and could take that license away and ensure compliance with safety standards.”

In the meantime, he said, OpenAI pre-tests and constantly updates its tools to ensure safety, arguing that making them widely available to the public helps the company identify and mitigate risks.

Tuesday’s hearing demonstrated the wide-ranging concerns prompted by rapid consumer adoption of AI systems like ChatGPT, the consumer-facing chatbot that rocketed to an estimated 100 million users within two months.

The topics covered were how the technology might affect elections, intellectual-property theft, news coverage, military operations, and even diversity and inclusion initiatives.

“It’s important to understand that GPT-4 is a tool, not a creature,” Mr. Altman said, referring to the most recent version of the system that powers ChatGPT. “And it’s a tool that people have great control over.”

On the job market, for example, he said the technology “will, I think, entirely automate away some jobs. And it will create new ones that we believe will be much better.”

Lawmakers described Tuesday’s hearing as a first step in understanding the new AI systems, reflecting the lack of consensus over a congressional response even as members of both parties see a need for federal regulation.

“Will we strike that balance between technological innovation and our ethical and moral responsibility?” asked Sen. Josh Hawley (R., Mo.), the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee panel hosting Tuesday’s hearing.

Committee Chairman Sen. Dick Durbin (D., Ill.) was one of several senators to compare the rise of AI to the early days of the social-media industry, which grew up with little regulation from Congress.

“When it came to online platforms, the government inclined to get out of the way,” he said. “I’m not sure I’m happy with the outcome as I look at online platforms and the harms they have created…I don’t want to make that mistake again.”

ChatGPT and similar tools can instantly produce humanlike outputs of text, computer code, videos, music, and photos based on written prompts. Its overnight success sparked an industry race, with Microsoft, an investor in OpenAI, enabling ChatGPT in the Windows operating system and Google adding its own so-called generative AI systems, including one called Bard, to its apps.

The session with Mr. Altman is the latest in a series of discussions in Washington. On Monday, Mr. Altman met privately with about 60 House lawmakers from both parties. Earlier this month, he attended a White House sit-down with the chief executives of Google and Microsoft and Vice President Kamala Harris, who told the companies they are responsible for ensuring their products are safe.

At Tuesday’s hearing, several lawmakers raised concerns about elections, fretting about how AI systems could be used to spread false information or otherwise manipulate voters.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.), chair of the subcommittee, started the hearing by playing a fake AI-generated recording of his voice reading an opening statement written by ChatGPT. He marveled at its realism and questioned what else it could create.

“What if it had provided an endorsement of Ukraine surrendering or Vladimir Putin’s leadership?” he said, referring to Russia’s president. “The prospect is more than a little scary.”

Another witness, New York University professor emeritus Gary Marcus, warned lawmakers that AI facilitates an explosion of made-up information that makes it difficult for people to separate fact from fiction, pointing to defense attorneys questioning evidence at criminal trials.

“Anybody can deny anything,” he said. “We have built machines like bulls in a china shop—powerful, reckless, and difficult to control.”

“More like a bomb in a china shop, not a bull,” Mr. Blumenthal responded.

Mr. Altman compared the launch of AI tools to the earlier release of photo-editing software, noting that people “quickly developed an understanding that images might be photoshopped.”

Key Points

  • The rise of AI raises several concerns, including the potential for the technology to spread false information, manipulate voters, and create new forms of discrimination.
  • Some experts believe that government regulation is necessary to mitigate these risks, while others argue that the technology is still too new to be effectively regulated.
  • The debate over AI regulation will likely continue as the technology develops and its potential impact on society becomes clearer.

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