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By BRENDAN BORDELON/Politicio

In a shift for Washington tech lobbying, companies and investors from across the industry have been pouring tens of millions of dollars into an all-hands effort to block strict safety rules on advanced artificial intelligence and get lawmakers to worry about China instead — and so far, they seem to be winning over once-skeptical members of Congress.

The success of the pro-tech, anti-China AI push, fueled by several new arrivals on the lobbying scene, marks a change from months in which the AI debate was dominated by well-funded philanthropies warning about the long-term dangers of the technology.

The new influence web is pushing the argument that AI is less an existential danger than a crucial business opportunity, and arguing that strict safety rules would hand America’s AI edge to China. It has already caused key lawmakers to back off some of their more worried rhetoric about the technology.

“What we don’t want to have happen is have [advanced AI] development occur outside of the United States,” Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), one of four lawmakers in Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s AI working group, told POLITICO. “So we’re not going to try to restrict development here.”

The effort, a loosely coordinated campaign led by tech giants IBM and Meta, includes wealthy new players in the AI lobbying space such as top chipmaker Nvidia, as well as smaller AI startups, the influential venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz and libertarian billionaire Charles Koch.

Their lobbyists are hoping to influence a pivotal moment in Washington AI policy. In the Senate, Schumer is drafting an AI legislative framework and promising to offer it “in a few weeks.” And the Biden administration is now making key decisions about how to enforce its sweeping AI executive order.

Until recently, the AI regulation debate was dominated by experts and executives warning policymakers about cataclysmic risks — like the potential for new AI models to develop deadly bioweapons, or even become sentient and exterminate humanity — and demanding strict rules on the most advanced models.

“They were the biggest and loudest voices out there,” said chief IBM lobbyist Christopher Padilla. “They were scaring a lot of people.”

Now IBM’s lobbyists have mobilized, along with their counterparts at Meta, Nvidia, Andreessen Horowitz and elsewhere. They want Washington to reject strict safety rules and to back “open-source” AI models, which scare some safety advocates because key elements of their source code are publicly available.

The full-court press is having an impact. Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.), another senator in Schumer’s bipartisan AI group, told POLITICO that many in Congress have abandoned their once-fearful tone about the technology’s rapid development.

“I think the more people learn about some of these [AI] models, the more comfortable they are that the steps our government has already taken are by-and-large appropriate steps,” Young told POLITICO.

He said many of his Senate colleagues are now “imbued with a certain humility they may not have had going into the conversation,” and said he’s personally “apprehensive about constraining innovation.”

Last year, Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) declared himself “freaked out” by cutting-edge AI systems, also known as frontier models, and called for regulation to ward off several scary scenarios. Today, Lieu co-chairs the House AI Task Force and says he’s unconvinced by claims that Congress must crack down on advanced AI.

“If you just say, ‘We’re scared of frontier models’ — okay, maybe we should be scared,” Lieu told POLITICO. “But I would need something beyond that to do legislation. I would need to know what is the threat or the harm that we’re trying to stop.”

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