How a New Bipartisan Task Force Is Thinking About Artificial Intelligence

7 minute read

On Tuesday, speaker of the House of Representatives Mike Johnson and Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries launched a bipartisan Task Force on Artificial Intelligence. 

Johnson, a Louisiana Republican, and Jeffries, a New York Democrat, each appointed 12 members to the Task Force, which will be chaired by Representative Jay Obernolte, a California Republican, and co-chaired by Representative Ted Lieu, a California Democrat. According to the announcement, the Task Force will “produce a comprehensive report that will include guiding principles, forward-looking recommendations and bipartisan policy proposals developed in consultation with committees of jurisdiction.”

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Obernolte—who has a masters in AI from the University of California, Los Angeles and founded the video game company FarSight Studios—and Lieu—who studied computer science and political science at Stanford University—are natural picks to lead the Task Force. But many of the members have expertise in AI too. Representative Bill Foster, a Democrat from Illinois, told TIME that he programmed neural networks in the 1990s as a physics Ph.D. working at a particle accelerator. Other members have introduced AI-related bills and held hearings on AI policy issues. And Representative Don Beyer, a 73-year old Democrat from Virginia, is pursuing a masters in machine learning at George Mason University alongside his Congressional responsibilities.

Since OpenAI released the wildly popular ChatGPT chatbot in November 2022, lawmakers around the world have rushed to get to grips with the societal implications of AI. In the White House, the Biden Administration has done all it can, by issuing a sweeping Executive Order in October 2023 intended to both ensure the U.S. benefits from AI while mitigating risks associated with the technology. In the Senate, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced a regulatory framework in June 2023, and has since been holding closed-door convenings between lawmakers, experts, and industry executives. Many Senators have been holding their own hearings, proposing alternative regulatory frameworks, and submitting bills to regulate AI.

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The House however, partly due to the turmoil following former Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s ouster in the fall, has lagged behind. The Task Force represents the lower house’s most significant AI regulation step yet. Given that AI legislation will require the approval of both houses, the Task Force’s report could shape the agenda for future AI laws. TIME spoke with eight Task Force members to understand their priorities.

A range of perspectives

Each member has a slightly different focus, informed by their backgrounds before entering politics and the different committees they sit on. 

“I recognize that if used responsibly, AI has the potential to enhance the efficiency of patient care, improve health outcomes, and lower costs,” California Democrat Representative Ami Bera told TIME in an emailed statement. He trained as an internal medicine doctor, taught at the UC Davis School of Medicine and served as Sacramento County’s Chief Medical Officer before entering politics in 2013. 

Meanwhile Colorado Democrat Representative Brittany Pettersen is focused on AI’s impact on the banking system. “As artificial intelligence continues to rapidly advance and become more widely available, it has the potential to impact everything from our election systems with the use of deep fakes, to bank fraud perpetuated by high-tech scams. Our policies must keep up to ensure we continue to lead in this space while protecting our financial system and our country at-large,” said Petterson, who is a member of the House Financial Services bipartisan Working Group on AI and introduced a bill last year to address AI-powered bank scams, in an emailed statement.

The fact that the members each have different focuses and sit on different committees is, in part, a design choice, suggests Foster, the Illinois Democrat. “At one point, I counted there were seven committees in Congress that claimed they were doing some part of Information Technology. Which means we have no committees… because there's no one who's really got themselves and their staff focused on information technology full time,” he says. The Task Force might allow the House to “actually move the ball forward” on policy issues that span committee jurisdictions, he hopes.

Common concerns

If some issues are particular to certain members, others are a shared source of concern. All eight of the Task Force members that TIME spoke with expressed fears over AI-generated deep fakes and their potential impact on elections.

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While no other issue commanded the same unanimity of interest, many themes recurred. Labor impacts from AI-powered hiring software and automation, algorithmic bias, AI in healthcare, data protection and privacy—all of these issues were raised by multiple members of the Task Force in conversations with TIME.

Another topic raised by several members was the CREATE AI Act, a bill that would establish a National AI Research Resource (NAIRR) that would provide researchers with the tools they need to do cutting-edge research. A pilot of the NAIRR was recently launched by the National Science Foundation—something instructed by President Biden’s AI Executive Order.

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Representative Haley Stevens, a Democrat from Michigan, stressed the importance of maintaining technological superiority over China. “Frankly, I want the United States of America, alongside our western counterparts, setting the rules for the road with artificial intelligence, not the Chinese Communist Party,” she said. Representative Scott Franklin, a Republican from Florida, concurred, and argued that preventing industrial espionage would be especially important. “We're putting tremendous resources against this challenge and investing in it, we need to make sure that we're protecting our intellectual property,” he said.

Both Franklin and Beyer said the Task Force should devote some of its energies to considering existential risks from powerful future AI systems. “As long as there are really thoughtful people, like Dr. Hinton or others, who worry about the existential risks of artificial intelligence—the end of humanity—I don't think we can afford to ignore that,” said Beyer. “Even if there's just a one in a 1000 chance, one in a 1000 happens. We see it with hurricanes and storms all the time.”

Other members are less worried. “If we get the governance right on the little things, then it will also protect against that big risk,” says Representative Sara Jacobs, a Democrat from California. “And I think that there's so much focus on that big risk, that we're actually missing the harms and risks that are already being done by this technology.”

Bipartisan optimism

The Task Force has yet to meet, and while none of its members were able to say when it might publish its report, they need to move quickly to have any hope of their work leading to federal legislation before the presidential election takes over Washington.

State lawmakers are not waiting for Congress to act. Earlier this month, Senator Scott Wiener, a Democrat who represents San Francisco and parts of San Mateo County in the California State Senate, introduced a bill that would seek to make powerful AI systems safe by, among other things, mandating safety tests. “I would love to have one unified Federal law that effectively addresses AI safety issues,” Wiener said in a recent interview with NPR. “Congress has not passed such a law. Congress has not even come close to passing such a law.”

But many of the Task Force’s members argued that, while partisan gridlock has made it difficult for the House to pass anything in recent months, AI might be the one area where Congress can find common ground.

“I've spoken with a number of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle on this,” says Franklin, the Florida Republican. “We're all kind of coming in at the same place, and we understand the seriousness of the issue. We may have disagreement on exactly how to address [the issues]. And that's why we need to get together and have those conversations.”

“The fact that it's bipartisan and bicameral makes me very optimistic that we'll be able to get meaningful things done in this calendar year,” says Beyer, the Virginia Democrat. “And put it on Joe Biden's desk.”

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