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Dragos Tudorache, a key member of the European Parliament who shepherded the European Union’s legislation on artificial intelligence technologies to a vote, recalls reaching out in 2021 to then-Rep. Jerry McNerney, who was co-chair of the Congressional Artificial Intelligence Caucus.

Tudorache, a lawyer and judge who previously served as Romania’s minister for communications and digital society, wanted to tap U.S. policymakers’ thinking on AI’s impact on workers, industry and society at large. McNerney, who holds a Ph.D. in mathematics, had proposed legislation in 2018 that would have paved the way for AI expertise in government agencies. A 2020 version of the bill, called the AI in Government Act, passed the House but not the Senate.

Similarly, as early as 2018, the European Commission, the executive arm of the 27-member bloc, had proposed regulations aimed at harnessing the power of AI while protecting people’s rights. At the time of Tudorache’s call, only a small group of lawmakers on both sides of the Atlantic seemed concerned about the benefits and consequences of what was then considered early-stage tech.

McNerney left Congress in 2023 after 16 years as a lawmaker, citing “grotesque and ugly” partisanship. When asked last September what his colleagues got wrong about AI, he told Roll Call, “They basically don’t understand what it means. Is this some big mind that’s going to take over the world? No. It’s going to enhance people’s productivity. But there is a chance that it could cause displacements in the workforce.”

McNerney, who chaired the caucus for five years, in an interview Tuesday recalled the conversation with Tudorache, saying U.S. lawmakers and their staff showed a “tremendous amount of interest in learning about AI.” But McNerney, now a senior policy adviser at the law firm of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP, noted that attendance at caucus meetings dropped off “pretty significantly” after the COVID-19 pandemic and the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.

Since then, Europe has marched forward. The EU began considering AI regulations because “self-regulation, self-compliance and discipline by companies were no longer sufficient,” Tudorache said in an interview in his Brussels office. “I think that’s where we have served our purposes better by anticipating some of the impacts,” as the rest of the world scrambles to catch up.

As the European Parliament took up the proposals to turn them into legislation, Tudorache was leading an effort to help educate fellow lawmakers by arranging briefings with experts and stakeholders to understand how AI would affect “everything from agriculture to space exploration,” he said.

“We started asking questions about the technology, and the base of people who understood concerns about AI grew to the point” that the European Parliament in June adopted draft legislation, the EU AI Act. “Whereas in the U.S., I think it remained that handful of lawmakers, until ChatGPT came out,” Tudorache said, referring to the launch of the generative AI launched by OpenAI that jolted U.S. lawmakers into action.

Since April, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., has increasingly focused on the issue.

In May, a group of more than 350 researchers, executives and engineers working on AI systems said that “mitigating the risk of extinction from AI should be a global priority.” The warning followed the rapid development and deployment of so-called large language models that are AI systems fed with vast quantities of text and images to teach them how humans think and express themselves.

In June, Schumer unveiled a plan that would “protect, expand, and harness AI’s potential.” He has tasked a small group of lawmakers — including Sens. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M.; Todd Young, R-Ind.; and Mike Rounds, R-S.D. — to draw up proposals. The majority leader already has held three closed-door briefings for lawmakers on the technology’s potential and dangers.

Starting Sept. 13, Schumer plans to host as many as 10 forums featuring experts and civil society groups in which senators can participate. In the House, Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., has tapped an informal group of lawmakers led by Rep. Jay Obernolte, R-Calif., a computer scientist by training, to brainstorm ideas.

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