Artificial intelligence made its way onto the third and final debate of California’s U.S. Senate race Tuesday evening, where the four leading candidates met ahead of the March 5 primary.
All four candidates — Democratic Reps. Adam Schiff of Burbank, Katie Porter of Irvine and Barbara Lee of Oakland as well as Republican ex-Dodger Steve Garvey — concurred that AI should be regulated, but they differed on the reasons why.
AI, “technology that enables computers and digital devices to learn, read, write, talk, see, create, play, analyze, make recommendations and do other things humans do,” according to tech company IBM, has California voters worried this election cycle. Just over five in 10 said they are concerned about their jobs being replaced by AI, according to a December survey by Politico and Morning Consult.
Schiff, during Tuesday’s debate, focused on how AI should be regulated to protect workers. He pointed to the Hollywood strikes over the summer, when Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists and the Writers’ Guild of America members walked out over a number of concerns, including a lack of guardrails against AI taking over writers’ work.
“I was proud to be out there on the picket lines making sure that in these contracts for so many of the workers in the entertainment industry … had protections against AI, potential threat to their jobs,” said Schiff. “We need to also address these changes in the workplace in the light of these new technologies to make sure workers are protected.”
Schiff, when asked in the Register’s Voter Guide questionnaire what he sees as the federal government’s role in creating and enforcing a regulatory framework, said he supports “a high-level agency that is able to act nimbly and put adequate safeguards in place as the technology evolves.”
Lee, who is positioning herself as the more progressive candidate in the race, focused on the nasty side of AI: the potential for the technology to discriminate.
She pointed to studies that have shown how AI can stereotype based on race and gender. Last year, Stable Diffusion, a text-to-image generative AI model created by the startup Stability AI, was found to be amplifying certain stereotypes, like depicting men with lighter skin tones as holding the majority of high-paying jobs, including politicians, lawyers, judges and CEOs, according to Bloomberg. Low-paying jobs, like housekeeper and cashier, however, were depicted as darker-skinned women. A spokesperson for Stability AI told Bloomberg the company is working to develop open-source AI models that are trained to understand different countries and cultures, which they say will “mitigate biases.”
A 2023 study led by the Stanford School of Medicine found that popular chatbots like ChatGPT, GPT-4 and Claude, “appeared to reinforce long-held false beliefs about biological differences between Black and White people,” according to the Associated Press.
“We have to be careful that (artificial intelligence) is not used to discriminate against people because there are some real issues around racial justice that we have to address with AI,” Lee said from the debate stage. “Now’s the time to do it.”
“These are biases that target Black and Brown people,” she said in her Voter Guide questionnaire. “We must work to eliminate the biases within AI algorithms, and that starts by ensuring the way AI is designed and trained is more fair and equitable.”
But Lee also sees positives with AI, saying artificial intelligence can help with the climate crisis, education and healthcare and that a regulatory environment must be developed right away so that the technology can be used for good.
AI tools are already being used in these sectors, by detecting methane and forest fires, locating critical minerals for green technology used in solar panels and electric vehicles, diagnosing and treating illnesses and fostering immersive learning in schools.
Garvey, meanwhile, wants Congress to work with technological innovators, who are mostly based in California to adopt regulations governing the use of AI.
“Because once it starts affecting you and I, and once it starts affecting Californians, that’s when we have to have regulation,” he said.
Like Lee, Garvey said AI has the potential to help with challenges, including in the medical field and climate change.
“However, we must adopt reasonable regulations that ensure the disruption caused by AI is not catastrophic to the livelihoods and security of our residents,” he said in his Voter Guide questionnaire.
And Porter, who sought to position herself during the debate as an outsider unbeholden to special interests, pointed to the “powerful interests that are backing AI” as a reason to regulate the technology, referencing a recent ad from crypto-sponsored super PAC, Fairshake.
While the ad, which accuses Porter of taking money from major banks and pharmaceutical and oil companies, does not mention AI, the Irvine congresswoman alleged that the PAC — major donors to which include venture capital firm AH Capital Management, crypto giant Coinbase and tech company Ripple Labs — is part of the “powerful interests that are backing AI.”
“These are the same handful of ultra-wealthy billionaires who are backing ads that spread false truths about me,” Porter alleged.
In her questionnaire, Porter said: “AI has the potential to be a democratizing force — but it also poses dangerous risks like spreading misinformation online, endangering national security, reinforcing stereotypes and discrimination, automating jobs and more. Washington must take urgent action to protect against these potential risks — not slow walk until it’s too late to take meaningful action.”
While only Garvey, Lee, Porter and Schiff have participated in the three debates held thus far, there are more than 20 other candidates on the primary ballot for the U.S. Senate race, including Republican attorney Eric Early and former local TV journalist Christina Pascucci, a Democrat.
On AI, Early said that while he believes in small government, “the threat of AI run amok is so severe” that the federal government must actively regulate the industry.
Pascucci, too, called for regulation, saying her career as a journalist taught her “the value of truth and the danger of disinformation.” Like Garvey, Pascucci said while AI may cure cancer one day, it poses challenges and risks. Innovators in California’s Silicon Valley should be tapped to push forward the regulation of AI technology, she said.
Mark Ruzon, a software engineer who resides in Mountain View, said an area of particular concern is the use of AI in weapons.
“We should work with the nations of the world to outlaw weapons that use AI to attack civilians indiscriminately or to assassinate specific individuals,” he said.