Rep. Jay Obernolte is driving the AI ​​conversation in Congress — and he’s optimistic about it — Orange County Register

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Rep. Jay Obernolte, R-Hesperia, sits at his office desk Friday, April 5, 2024, in Hesperia. (Photo by Anjali Sharif Pal, The Sun/SCNG)

Jay Obernolte was a seventh grader when his father came home with a transformative gift: an Apple II Plus computer and a book on how to learn to program.

It didn’t have a disk drive or cassette interface — they were expensive, he recalled — which meant nothing could be saved. Every program he learned to write had to be retyped when he started the computer from scratch.

That repetition, that suffering, helped solidify Obernolte’s lifelong ambition to become a researcher in artificial intelligence.

He went to school to do just that, studying engineering and applied science at Caltech before earning a master’s degree in artificial intelligence from UCLA.

But instead of working in the ivory tower of academia, Obernolt is leading the charge on AI policy in Congress, where professional players outnumber lawmakers with computer science degrees.

Coming into Congress, where he represents a district spanning San Bernardino, Los Angeles and Kern counties, Obernolte thought his knowledge and background in the tech world would be a resource for his colleagues as he Served in the California Legislature. Six years early, he was a leader in digital data privacy legislation.

“He’s really gifted at explaining all of this to real people, to those of us who aren’t tech savvy,” said state Senate Minority Leader Brian Jones, R-San Diego.

But what Obernault didn’t immediately anticipate, he said, was how much AI would explode.

When it became clear that a federal framework was needed to regulate the emerging industry, Obernolte, a Republican, approached then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy to set up a working group. And through tumultuous leadership changes and legislative deadlock in Congress, a task force on artificial intelligence was created — and two dozen lawmakers are already working on it.

Obernolte believes that AI’s impact on the world will ultimately exceed the Internet.

“I think we’re in the same place as we were at the birth of the Internet, where no one can really imagine all the changes that are going to happen as a result of the Internet. The idea that we’ll all be in our pockets in 2024. Walking around with a supercomputer, being able to instantly access communications all over the world and, by the way, order pizza on DoorDash, you couldn’t have imagined it. But Yet here we are,” he said. “I think that’s going to be true of AI as well.”

That’s why regulation is needed, he said, to mitigate any potential harm AI may cause to society. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t already some regulations in place.

And he is using Europe as a guide – for what not to do.

There, major legislation passed by the European Union aims to take a “risk-based approach” to AI, the Associated Press reported. Systems considered “high risk” have additional regulations or are banned outright under the AI ​​Act.

“The reason for regulating AI is clear,” Obernolte said. “We want to minimize the potential harm that AI can do to our society and our constituents.” If you’re doing it, then you’ve started doing something stupid,” he said.

He said the EU’s model is creating a bunch of new regulations that in many ways do nothing to protect against potential harm, and the unfortunate result is stifling innovation, stifling entrepreneurship and stifling entrepreneurship. is for AI could bring some potential benefits to the people of Europe.”

“I think we can find a balance between minimizing the harms that need to be mitigated and still allowing the positive benefits of AI to reach the people we represent,” Obernolte said. are.”

And he believes his task force is equipped to do just that.

From designing video games to legislation

Like many members of Congress, Obernolte, 53, started out as a local politician, first on the Big Bear City Airport District board of directors and then as a member and mayor of the Big Bear Lake City Council.

“He’s definitely conservative,” said Big Bear Lake City Council member Rick Herrick, who served on the council with Obernault. “We’ve had a lot of conversations over dinner about conservative issues. But he’s so pragmatic about what he’s doing, what’s working. That’s why he’s so good at navigating political issues. Is.

Obernolte represented rural and mountain communities in San Bernardino County in the Assembly from 2014 to 2020 before his election to the House of Representatives in 2020.

But he is unusual in other ways. Obernolte is one of only four software company executives in the House of Representatives. His company, FarSight Studios, develops video games for mobile devices, video consoles and virtual reality headsets.

He founded the company in his Caltech dorm room and later paused the doctorate in AI he was working on when his first video game — “David Crane’s Amazing Tennis” — where players compete in exhibitions and tournaments. could — became a resounding success.

Even in the Assembly, Obernolte was the go-to guy for technical issues, said former Assemblyman Don Wagner, who served with Obernolte in the House. While they don’t keep in touch much anymore — save the happy birthday text — Wagner said he’s not surprised that Obernolte’s tech-savvy reputation has followed him to Congress.

“He’s an incredibly smart guy,” said Wagner, now an Orange County supervisor.

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For Obernolte, politics came from a sense of wanting to make society and the world a better place for our children.

“When I looked at my kids and I asked them what their mission was, they said, ‘We see you as the American dream, and we want to do what you’ve done. And want to start a business that we’re passionate about,'” he said. “And yet, we know that the business environment in California is much more difficult now than it was when I started my business 30 years ago. I don’t think it would be possible for them to do what I did. They should work as hard as I did.”

In Big Bear Lake, Sacramento and now Washington, Obernault has made a mark on his record of working across the aisle, preferring to get things done with people he might otherwise disagree with to score political points.

As they did in Big Bear Lake, Obernolte and his wife, Heather, helped foster those relationships by holding regular dinner parties in Sacramento, where they would break bread with both Democratic and Republican lawmakers.

“It helped break down some of those barriers in communication,” Jones said.

The couple has begun hosting similar dinners in Washington, including with Rep. Sidney Kumlager-Dove, D-Los Angeles.

“Congressman Obernolte and I have been working together on tech policy since our days in the state legislature,” said Kamlager Dove. “If Congress is going to tackle complex issues like AI, we need to be able to work together in a bipartisan way, and I know I have a partner in Congressman Obernolte — to find solutions. Determined and always ready to work. Aisle.”

The emphasis on bipartisanship led, at least in part, to Obernolte being one of the most productive Republicans in Sacramento. Still, in D.C., however, his voting record is consistently accurate.

Evangelism for AI

Much is unknown about artificial intelligence. And that creates a lot of fear,” Obernolte said.

Obernolte said some of the concerns — such as how AI will affect jobs, how it might facilitate the spread of misinformation — are valid. But others, like the prospect of an army of robots rising to take over the world, don’t keep regulators up at night at all, he said.

Obernolte, though, is an optimist. And that positivity drives his approach to how AI might be used — and even regulated.

“A lot of people don’t realize the opportunity we have,” Obernolte said. “AI is already an incredibly powerful tool for increasing human productivity, and I think it will also be the most efficient way of sharing information with each other that mankind has ever come up with. has come.”

Obernolte said that throughout American history, the nation’s gross domestic product has expanded in tandem with increases in the productivity of American workers. But labor productivity has declined in recent years, he said, pointing to the COVID-19 pandemic as a culprit.

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