Weeks after OpenAI released its ChatGPT chatbot last year, Sam Altman, the chief executive of the artificial intelligence startup, launched a lobbying blitz in Washington.
He demonstrated ChatGPT during a breakfast with more than 20 lawmakers at the Capitol. He called for AI regulation in a private meeting with Republican and Democratic congressional leaders. In total, Mr. Altman discussed the rapidly developing technology with at least 100 members of Congress, as well as Vice President Kamala Harris and members of the White House cabinet, according to lawmakers and the Biden administration.
“It’s so refreshing,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who chaired a panel last month that held a hearing on artificial intelligence that Mr. Altman attended. “He is willing, able and eager.”
CEOs of technology companies typically avoid the spotlight of government regulators and lawmakers. In recent years, Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Google’s Sundar Pichai have been persuaded to testify before Congress with threats of subpoenas and public humiliation.
But Mr. Altman, 38, has stepped into the spotlight, seeking the attention of lawmakers in a way that has thawed out icy attitudes toward Silicon Valley companies. He initiated the meeting and jumped at the opportunity to testify at a Senate hearing last month. Instead of protesting regulations, he invited lawmakers to implement sweeping rules to hold technology accountable.
Mr. Altman is also on tour, delivering a similar message about AI in a 17-city tour of South America, Europe, Africa and Asia. In recent weeks, he has met with French President Emmanuel Macron, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
“We believe the government’s regulatory intervention is critical to mitigating the risks of an increasingly powerful model,” Mr Altman told a Senate hearing last month.
His charm offensive puts him in an important position of influence. By engaging lawmakers early, Mr. Altman is shaping the debate on governing artificial intelligence and educating Washington about the complexities of the technology, especially at a time when fears about it are growing.Looking back at recent history, he’s also trying to avoid the pitfalls of social media companies, which have been targeted by lawmakers and paved the way for artificial intelligence
His actions could help cement OpenAI’s lead in the AI regulatory debate. Microsoft, Google, IBM and AI startups have drawn the line over the proposed rules and are divided on how much government intervention they want in their industries. Those disagreements have led other tech executives to take grievances to the Biden administration, members of Congress and global regulators.
So far, Mr Altman’s strategy appears to be working. American legislators see him as an educator and advisor. Last month, he presented ChatGPT to dozens of members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the House Artificial Intelligence Caucus. He proposed creating an independent regulator for artificial intelligence, technology licensing and safety standards.
“I have a lot of respect for Sam,” said Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., who hosted Mr. Altman for dinner last month with a dozen other senators.
But how long such goodwill will last is uncertain. Some lawmakers have cautioned against relying too heavily on Mr. Altman and other tech leaders to educate them about the explosion of new artificial intelligence technologies.
“He does look different, and it’s great to have him testify,” said Sen. Josh Hawley, the top-ranking Republican at the Senate hearing. “But I don’t think we should praise his company too much right now.”
Thanks to learning from the tech industry’s past mistakes, OpenAI said it hopes to bridge the knowledge gap in AI between Silicon Valley and Washington and help shape regulations.
“We don’t want this to be like previous technological revolutions,” said Anna Makanju, head of public policy at OpenAI, who leads a small team of five policy experts. Mr. Altman “knows this is an important time, so he’s trying to say yes to as many of these meetings as possible,” she said.
Mr Altman has been sounding the alarm about the potential risks of artificial intelligence for years, while also talking up the technology. In 2015, while leading the startup incubator Y Combinator, he co-founded OpenAI with Tesla CEO Elon Musk and others.He wrote in a blog post at the time that the government should regulate the most powerful AI tools
“In an ideal world, regulation would slow down the bad guys and speed up the good guys,” he said. wrote.
Ms Makanju said Mr Altman had long believed it was best to engage with regulators as early as possible.
In 2018, when OpenAI published statement about its mission, its commitment to putting safety first means the involvement of regulators, Ms Makanju said. In 2021, when the company releases DALL-E, an artificial intelligence tool that creates images based on text commands, the company sent its chief scientist, Ilya Sutskever, to demonstrate the technology to lawmakers.
In January, Mr. Altman traveled to Washington to address members of Congress at an informal breakfast organized by the Aspen Institute. He answered questions and previewed OpenAI’s new artificial intelligence engine, GPT-4, which he said has better safety features.
Mr. Altman has surprised some lawmakers with his candor about the risks of AI. In a March meeting with Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., at OpenAI’s San Francisco office, Mr. Altman said AI could have a disruptive impact on the workforce, reducing the workweek from five days to one.
“He’s very direct,” said Liu, who has a degree in computer science.
Mr. Altman visited Washington again in early May for a White House meeting with Ms. Harris and the chief executives of Microsoft, Google and artificial intelligence startup Anthropic. During the trip, he also discussed regulatory thinking and concerns about the development of artificial intelligence in China with Majority Leader Senator Chuck Schumer of New York.
In mid-May, Mr. Altman returned for two days of public and private appearances with lawmakers, beginning with a dinner between Mr. Liu and Louisiana Republican Rep. Mike Johnson at the Capitol with 60 House members. Over a buffet of grilled chicken, potatoes, and salads, he wowed the crowd for two and a half hours by demonstrating ChatGPT and answering questions.
According to Mr. Liu, he typed “write a bill on naming a post office after Representative Ted Liu” in the ChatGPT prompt that appeared on the big screen. “Write a speech introducing the bill for Representative Mike Johnson,” he wrote as a second prompt.
Mr Lieu said the answer was convincing, drawing snickers and raised eyebrows from the audience.
The next morning, Mr. Altman testified at a Senate hearing on the risks of artificial intelligence. He has laid out a range of regulatory ideas and proposals backed by lawmakers, including Mr Blumenthal’s idea for consumer risk labels on artificial intelligence tools, similar to nutrition labels on food.
“I’m used to witnesses coming in and trying to convince us with talking points,” Mr Blumenthal said. “What’s different about Sam Altman is he’s having the conversation.”
After a hearing that lasted three hours, Mr. Altman briefed the Senate Intelligence Committee on the security risks of artificial intelligence. That evening, he spoke at a dinner hosted by Mr. Warner at the Harvest Tide steakhouse on Capitol Hill. (Mr. Altman is a vegetarian.)
he also benefits from partnership A collaboration between OpenAI and Microsoft, which has invested $13 billion in the startup. Microsoft President Brad Smith said he and Mr. Altman gave each other feedback on drafts of the memo and blog post. The two companies also coordinated messaging ahead of the White House meeting, Mr. Smith said.
“Any day we can really support each other is a good day because we’re trying to do something together,” he said.
Some researchers and competitors say OpenAI has too much influence on the debate over AI regulation. Marietje Schaake, a fellow at Stanford University’s Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence and a former member of the European Parliament, said Mr Altman’s proposals for licensing and testing could benefit more established AI companies like his.
“He’s not just an expert, he’s a stakeholder,” Ms Shaq said.