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Experts Discuss Impact of Generative AI on Democracy at Harvard Kennedy School Conference

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Experts, policymakers, and Harvard affiliates discussed generative artificial intelligence and potential regulations of the technology at a conference hosted by the Harvard Kennedy School this weekend.

The conference, titled “AI & Democracy,” lasted from Nov. 30 to Dec. 2 and was attended by students across the University, as well as by neighboring institutions and members of government.

Several high profile panelists spoke at the conference, including former New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, Rep. Ted W. Lieu (D-CA), and Senator Ed Markey (D-MA).

The conference was part of the Kennedy School’s Program on Science, Technology & Society, which fosters programming, research, and a network to connect experts across fields in order to address the impacts of innovation on policymaking.

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De Blasio was a panelist in a discussion on transparency in AI for democracy Friday afternoon. In an interview, he emphasized the pressing need to address the looming influence of AI in the political sphere.

“I think artificial intelligence is going to become the preeminent political issue and the framing issue in terms of impact on people’s lives,” de Blasio said.

He said more work needs to be done on the issue.

“Right now, there’s an absolute lack of infrastructure for addressing this issue, meaning there’s not an activist movement, there’s not a healthy enough national debate, there’s not a sense of what our options are and what directions we could take,” he said.

“And so given that our political system is actually not providing this, we have to do it from the grassroots up,” de Blasio added.

Following de Blasio’s panel, Lieu was a panelist on a discussion about his concerns with AI and regulating AI as a policymaker.

Lieu identified his concerns around AI's destructive potential through the use of foreign defense autonomous weapons which can be launched automatically.

He said he has introduced bipartisan legislation to address these concerns with Markey, who also was a panelist during the conference.

“It basically says, no matter how amazing AI gets, we’re never ever going to let it launch a nuclear weapon by itself,” Lieu said.

John M. Lopez ’03, a representative of the Writer’s Guild of America, was a panelist in a discussion entitled “Labor and Workers” Friday morning.

In an interview after the event, Lopez said part of his role in the WGA is “to study AI” and put forward proposals to companies in light of the primary concern of AI replacing screenwriters.

Lopez also advocated for grassroots mobilization to regulate AI – citing the 2023 WGA strike as an example.

“I think there is great potential in AI, but also massive, massive potential for harm,” Lopez said.

Lopez argued for more data transparency as part of efforts to regulate AI.

“These are incredibly complex and complicated machines,” he said. “That shouldn’t scare you. But it’s kind of silly to offload that burden onto smaller people, and it’s the poor people who have to be responsible for the outputs of these systems.”

De Blasio emphasized the importance of colleges and universities in efforts to regulate AI.

“Historically, a lot of social change has begun on college campuses,” de Blasio said.

“I think the folks in Science, Technology and Society are doing really important work, asking powerful questions about what impact technology is having, what kind of governance structures we need,” he added.

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