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How Washington’s AI Summit Leaves Out the Little Guy


Quotes from Rick White, Former U.S. Congressman & CEO of Technet

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Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer hopes to kickstart federal AI legislation with a major DC conclave that prioritized the industry’s Goliaths

Vienna, Vir., the suburban homebase of Seekr Technologies, sits 20 minutes from Washington, D.C. A few times a week, CEO Pat Condo heads into the District to talk up the startup’s software, which uses artificial intelligence to assess online content’s credibility, and attend more general meetings about the technology with other Beltway firms, conversations “about identifying human trafficking through video,” he said, “or understanding the ethics of AI.”

And while Wednesday is a landmark day for Condo’s industry on Capitol Hill, Condo won’t be in attendance. There, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) will host a major closed-door summit for all 100 senators that will host executives from the largest companies developing AI technology, including Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, OpenAI’s Sam Altman and the CEOs of Alphabet and Microsoft.

The conclave is seen as a significant step toward potential new regulation around the emerging, blossoming industry. But restricting the gathering’s guest list to the industry Goliaths leaves proverbial Davids like Condo worried that the Alphabets and Microsofts will help write new rules to primarily benefit themselves.

“How about picking 15 or 20 other companies that are all independent of them and see what they would come up with or what their point of view is?” Condo asked. “I can guarantee you that, in most cases, you’ll get a group of companies trying to create an equal playing field versus a monopoly that ensures continued dominance for the next 20 years.”

In the last 18 months, interest in artificial intelligence has exploded as billions of investment dollars poured in and tools like OpenAI’s ChatGPT captured public imagination. Warnings about the technology’s possible misuse have piled up, too, and Washington is increasingly taking notice of the burgeoning industry. In May, Altman testified at a Senate hearing, followed by a White House announcement two months later that Altman’s OpenAI and a slew of other major companies had agreed to a set of basic guidelines that require the businesses to add watermarks to AI-generated content and allow external audits, among other rules.

The Biden administration has continued to add more businesses to that list—IBM, Nvidia and six others officially signed on this week—but those guidelines rely on the companies to self-regulate themselves. Congress hasn’t enacted any major legislation around AI, though several bills have been introduced. Schumer is hoping to light a fire under his colleagues and hopes to use the summit on Wednesday as an ignition, planning a series of similar events throughout the fall.

“Legislating on AI is certainly not going to be easy,” Schumer said last week in a speech on the Senate floor. “In fact, it will be one of the most difficult things we’ve ever undertaken, but we cannot behave like ostriches sticking our heads in the sand.”

In the same address, Schumer promised to solicit a “diverse” and “balanced” field of experts for the summit and subsequent meetings. In reality, he may be already falling short on that promise with that guest list limited to the industry’s biggest corporations. (Schumer declined to comment for this story and hasn’t made the complete list of attendees public.)

Rick White
Big companies like Microsoft and Alphabet have the resources to spend millions in lobbying dollars, ensuring a seat at the table and helping shape policy. The absence of their smaller rivals, which lack the same vast resources, isthe tragedy of all these major rule-makings,” said Rick White, a former GOP Congressman and former CEO of TechNet, a tech industry advocacy group, and leaves the field open to their larger competitors to sway lawmakers.

While the problem has plagued D.C. before, it’s especially acute in this instance. AI has rapidly emerged as a closely held industry given the enormous costs around developing the technology and scarce resources, particularly microchips. That already gives an upper hand to the largest companies.

Altman drew lawmakers’ attention to the situation in May and tried to position it as a positive, noting there were “fewer of us that you really have to keep a careful eye on.” Really, Washington may just end up handing them another advantage through favorable regulation—leaving small companies a “very legitimate reason for concern” that the rules drafted may disadvantage them, acknowledged one big tech executive, Salesforce’s Hugh Gamble, a vice president of federal government affairs.

So what would Seekr’s Condo suggest if Schumer did extend an invite? To start: a presidential commission to delve into artificial intelligence that gathers a “balanced” panel of experts and witnesses. He hopes the commission’s work could pave the path toward a federal agency devoted to AI—similar to NASA’s origins six decades ago. (With that, he and some of his bigger rivals share a goal: Altman and Microsoft Vice Chair and President Brad Smith have also advocated for an AI-centered government agency, too)

Another idea comes close to Condo’s heart and mind: a ratings system. He envisions a government-created set of classifications to grade the authenticity of web content—appended just as the Food Drug and Administration requires nutrition labels. It might alleviate concerns that AI-generated content will contribute further to the internet’s misinformation problem.

Jo Aggarwal, who’s the CEO of Wysa, an AI-based mental health app, has some outsider’s thoughts, too. Foremost, she’d like to see rules that prioritize user privacy. Without those guidelines, “it could start an irreversible trend of improper data use and collection,” she said.

Aggarwal then offers up an even wilder dream: a Congressional mandate that the large players offer bedrock technology like OpenAI’s large language model ChatGPT at affordable rates to smaller developers. Such price regulations would be an enormous Congressional reach into the marketplace but could help boost competition.

Fundamentally, what Aggarwal fears is the same thing that bothers Noel McMichael, a senior vice president of strategic initiatives and government affairs at LiveRamp, an analytics startup that incorporates AI into its work: an “oligarchy in the AI economy,” as McMichael put it.

His suggestion to Congress? Legislation that forces AI companies to make their software interoperable. On a basic level, this would ask them to play nicely with each other. Some tech does this. For instance, you can send a Gmail email to a person who has an Yahoo email account. Other tech doesn’t. You can’t send a message from Instagram to, say, Signal.

While ideas for corralling AI abound, McMichael doesn’t look at the situation unfolding in D.C. with much optimism. “I don’t have a lot of hope when you’re just calling in all the barons.”

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Rick White

alliantgroup’s Rick White, has a wealth of experience in the software and technology space having served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 1999 where he founded the Internet Caucus.

Representing the First District of Washington State as Congressman, White became well known as one of Congress’s most active legislators on high tech issues.

In his role with alliantgroup, White has been using his experience with American tech businesses of all sizes for the strategic benefit of alliantgroup’s clients and CPA partners.