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OpenAI’s Sam Altman calls for regulation amid fears AI could cause ‘significant harm to the world’

OpenAI CEO Sam Altman speaks at a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law
OpenAI CEO Sam Altman speaks at a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law Copyright Patrick Semansky/AP
Copyright Patrick Semansky/AP
By Luke Hurst with AP
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The CEO of OpenAI, the company behind ChatGPT, has told US politicians regulating AI would be “wise” given the dangers it could pose.

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Artificial intelligence (AI) technology could cause “significant harm to the world,” the CEO of OpenAI, Sam Altman, has told politicians in the United States.

Speaking before the US Congress, Altman said the idea of government regulation of AI “would be quite wise” given the potential risks it poses to society.

OpenAI is the company behind the AI chat bot ChatGPT, the fastest-growing user app of all time.

Built on the company’s GPT-3.5 large language model (LLM) technology, the popularity of the app has thrust generative AI into the spotlight - and led to authorities around the world scrambling to keep up.

“My worst fears are that we… the technology industry, cause significant harm to the world. I think that could happen in a lot of different ways,” he told the committee of senators.

The chair of the meeting, Democrat senator Richard Blumenthal, opened proceedings with a recorded speech that sounded like his voice, but was actually a voice clone trained on his speeches. It used ChatGPT-generated text.

The result was impressive, said Blumenthal, but he added: “What if it had provided an endorsement of Ukraine surrendering or Vladimir Putin’s leadership?”

Blumenthal said AI companies ought to be required to test their systems and disclose known risks before releasing them, and expressed particular concern about how future AI systems could destabilise the job market. 

Altman largely agreed with the sentiments expressed by the politicians.

“I think if this technology goes wrong, it can go quite wrong and we want to be vocal about that,” he said. “We want to work with the government to prevent that from happening. But we try to be very clear eyed about what the downside case is and the work that we have to do to mitigate that”.

He proposed the formation of a US or global agency that would licence the most powerful AI systems and have the authority to “take that licence away and ensure compliance with safety standards”.

On the future of work, which has been a particular worry for many in the face of accelerating AI automation, Altman said he believes “there will be far greater jobs on the other side of this and that the jobs of today will get better”.

Initial concerns around chatbots like ChatGPT, which can generate realistic human-like writing in seconds, centred around how it could affect education with students potentially using it to cheat on assignments.

But the subsequent rapid spread of AI tech has led to broader concerns around the tools being used to mislead people, spread misinformation, violate copyright protections, and take away jobs.

New rules incoming in Europe

There’s no immediate sign Congress will draft sweeping new AI rules in the US, but regulation is taking shape on the other side of the Atlantic in Europe.

A European Parliament committee voted last week to strengthen its legislative proposal regarding AI regulation, as the EU draws up its ambitious AI Act.

The EU bill is centred around classifying AI systems at four levels of risk. Systems deemed to pose no-risk won’t be subject to much regulation, whereas those deemed to pose an unacceptable level of risk will be banned.

Examples of an unacceptable risk AI, according to the plans, include “social scoring by governments, to toys using voice assistance that encourages dangerous behaviour".

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“This is a remarkable time to be working on artificial intelligence. But as this technology advances, we understand that people are anxious about how it could change the way we live,” Altman told the committee.

“Given that we're going to face an election next year and these models are getting better, I think this is a significant area of concern. I think there's a lot of policies that companies can voluntarily adopt”.

OpenAI has expressed those existential concerns since its inception.

Co-founded by Altman in 2015 with backing from tech billionaire Elon Musk, the startup has evolved from a non-profit research lab with a safety-focused mission into a business. Its other popular AI products include the image-maker DALL-E.

Microsoft has invested billions of dollars into the startup and has integrated its technology into its own products, including its search engine Bing.

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