While all the CEOs, union bosses, and civil rights advocates were asked to raise their hands at points, one flaw with muzzling senators, according to critics on both sides of the proverbial aisle, is that lawmakers weren’t easily able to game out where their allies are in the Senate. And coalitions are key to compromise.
“There’s no feeling in the room,” says Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat. “Closed-door [sessions] for tech giants to come in and talk to senators and answer no tough questions is a terrible precedent for trying to develop any kind of legislation.”
While Warren sat in the front row—close enough so the assembled saw the whites of her fiery, consumer-focused eyes—other critics boycotted the affair, even as they sought out the throngs of reporters huddled in the halls.
“My concern is that [Schumer’s] legislation is leading to nowhere. I mean, I haven’t seen any indication he’s actually going to put real legislation on the floor. It’s a little bit like with antitrust the last two years, he talks about it constantly and does nothing about it,” says Senator Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican. “Part of what this is is a lot of song and dance that covers the fact that actually nothing is advancing. The whole fact that it’s not public, it’s just absurd.”
Absurd or not, some inside were placated, in part, because senators were reminded that AI isn’t just our future, it’s been in our lives for years—from social media to Google searches to self-driving cars and video doorbells—without destroying the world.
“I learned that we’re in good shape, that I’m not overly concerned about it,” says Senator Roger Marshall, a Kansas Republican. “I think artificial intelligence has been around for decades, most of it machine learning.”
Marshall stands out as an outlier, though his laissez-faire thinking is becoming in vogue in the GOP, which critics say is due to all the lobbying from the very firms whose leaders were in yesterday’s briefing.
“The good news is, the United States is leading the way on this issue. I think as long as we stay on the front lines, like we have the military weapons advancement, like we have in satellite investments, we’re gonna be just fine,” Marshall says. “I’m very confident we’re moving in the right direction.”
Still, studious attendees left with a renewed sense of urgency, even if that involves first studying a technology few truly understand, including those on the dais. It seems the more senators learn about the sweeping scope of generative AI, the more they recognize there’s no end to the Senate’s new regulatory role.
“Are we ready to go out and write legislation? Absolutely not,” says Senator Mike Rounds, a South Dakota Republican who helped Schumer run the bipartisan AI forums, the next of which will focus on innovation. “We’re not there.”
In what was once heralded as the “world’s greatest deliberative body,” even the timeline for legislation is debatable. “Everyone’s nodding their head saying, ‘Yeah, this is something we need to act on,’ so now the question is, ‘How long does it take to get to a consensus?’” says Senator John Hickenlooper, a Colorado Democrat. “But in broad strokes, I think that it’s not unreasonable to expect to get something done next year.”