WASHINGTON (TND) — The promises and dangers of artificial intelligence were once again the subject of a hearing on Capitol Hill as lawmakers continue to move toward regulation of the rapidly advancing technology.
Senators heard from experts from the public and private sector Thursday on how the Department of Energy’s expanding artificial intelligence and advanced technologies capabilities can further transform the country’s energy infrastructure and protect national security.
The Department of Energy is a leading agency within the U.S. government’s scientific and technological research and capabilities and oversees 17 national labs dedicated to solving complex research and development challenges.
Congress has taken sustained interest in artificial intelligence as its leaders warn of the potential for great technological and scientific advancements while also raising the potential for catastrophic consequences if things go off the rails.
Lawmakers have held a series of hearings and received briefings from leaders in the field with more on the agenda as they search for a starting point to regulate it. High-profile tech executives will come to the Capitol next week to take part in an AI policy forum being shepherded by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
Congress is facing mounting pressure to put guardrails in place before AI transforms industries and government functions.
“Whoever leads the world in understanding and mitigating the risks of AI, and the use of AI to improve national and global security will determine the landscape in which we and our allies will live and work in the future,” Dr. Rick Stevens, associate laboratory director at Argonne National Laboratory, told lawmakers on Thursday.
Witnesses at the hearing were Stevens, deputy Energy secretary David Turk; Anna Puglisi a senior fellow at the Center for Security and Emerging Technology at Georgetown University; and Andrew Wheeler, fellow and vice president at Hewlett Packard Labs and HPC & AI Advanced Development.
China was a common theme throughout the hearing due to concerns about espionage or theft of U.S. trade secrets. Chinese-sponsored hackers also have a history of targeting U.S. agencies, national labs and Cabinet officials, most recently a hack of Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo shortly before she took a trip to the country.
“China's sustained interest in our intellectual property is a stark reminder of the intense global competition surrounding artificial intelligence is competition may drive advancements in the field,” said Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo. “We can't overlook the threat to our economic and national security posed by the Chinese government. The Department of Energy and our national labs must take the China threat more seriously. We can't let our technology fall into the hands of those in Beijing.”
Puglisi, who previously worked as a counterintelligence officer focused on East Asia, told lawmakers that the problems go beyond protecting Energy Department labs.
“This is not a DOE problem, but a U.S.-wide problem, because China's system is not the same as ours,” Puglisi said. “China takes a holistic approach to developing technology, blurring the lines between public, private, civilian and military.”
Outside of China, witnesses told the committee that ensuring the country is prepared to deal with more sophisticated artificial intelligence capabilities being accessible by other adversarial nations or even individuals looking to cause harm.
“The technology is only improving and improving. It makes it easier for less sophisticated actors to do more sophisticated kinds of attacks, whether it's cybersecurity or any number of other things biohazards even nuclear proliferation efforts as well, and so we've got to take that head on,” Turk said.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., compared finding the initial AI guardrails to the introduction of Section 230 while the internet was still in its infancy. The internet has grown into a vital part of essentially every facet of everyday life in a way lawmakers could not have predicted 30 years ago.
With how vast the potential of AI is, Manchin said it is important for lawmakers and tech leaders to be thinking about the ways the government can help minimize the potential harms that can be done.
“If we've learned anything about the internet, we learned that for all the good it did there's other people out there waiting use it for nefarious situations, and they do it every day,” Manchin said.
Congress is trying to find the balance between minimizing harm and allowing artificial intelligence, which the U.S. is a global leader in developing, to continue to grow without having innovation stifled through regulatory hurdles.
Part of the continued development was ensuring the U.S. will have a pipeline of new workers able to work in the public and private sector, which senators and experts agreed will be vital to the future.
“We all need to focus on the workforce. And I know I've talked to a number of folks, they want to work on AI,” Turk said. “Private sector is great, and we need talent in the private sector, but they also want to work in the government and take on some of these public challenges as well. We just need to make it attractive to them in all sorts of ways so that we can compete.”