October 5, 2023

AI Forum Spotlight: Talking about the Impact of AI with NY State Assemblyman Clyde Vanel

By Elizabeth Haas

In this Emerging Technologies Collaborative blog space in the coming weeks, we will be highlighting select sessions from the recent NYU SPS AI Forum and Bootcamp.

Recently, at the NYU AI Forum our own Marc Beckman, founder of DMA United and Senior Fellow at the NYU School of Professional Studies (NYU SPS), sat down with New York State Assemblyman Clyde Vanel to talk about the political, social, economic, and cultural implications of artificial intelligence (AI). As a young, progressive lawmaker who chairs the Subcommittee on Internet & New Technologies and who has been in the news because he wrote a bill with the help of AI, Assemblyman Vanel seemed like an ideal interlocutor for the occasion. The conversation ranged widely, from Vanel’s own use of ChatGPT to his most pressing concerns about the future of work and democracy in an AI-powered world.

In his introductory remarks, Beckman stressed the potential of AI to transform our lives sooner than we might think. “A lot of this might seem theoretical and far away,” Beckman began, “but the reality is that AI is already impacting your careers, your communities, and you as an individual… AI has already become a central part of our daily lives, from voice assistants like Siri and Alexa to recommendation algorithms on social media.” In the long run, however, this impact could get a lot more significant – for better or for worse. Beckman, describing himself as an optimist on the matter, nonetheless quoted luminaries, from Stephen Hawking to Elon Musk, who believe that the uncontrolled development of self-directing AI could mark the end of humankind.

According to Beckman, AI could also turn quasi-utopian aspirations into realities. “In a few years, you’ll be sitting in your living room, using Apple’s new spatial computing with your friends and family, watching a football game as if it were happening right in front of you; the doorbell will ring, and your AI-driven Tesla will come to your house with your robot, which will deliver your tailor-focused and price-optimized groceries.”

During their conversation, Beckman and Assemblyman Vanel touched on how policy-making can make sure we secure the best without the worst in the future.

  • Assemblyman Vanel’s Experience as a Lawmaker
    “As policymakers, we have to encourage innovation… but when I look around, we [the government] are not exactly set up, or optimized, for innovation.” Recognizing that the public sector has historically been behind on technological change, Vanel explained his commitment to “make sure that we control technology and technology does not control us” moving forward. “The most important thing for us is to find a balance between innovation and fairness.” Far from an obstacle, the state should act as an “intermediary” that mediates the desire for entrepreneurs to innovate as fast as possible, and the public’s legitimate fears.

  • New York’s Decision to Halt the Use of Self-Driving Cars
    As an example, Vanel cited New York’s decision to halt the use of self-driving cars: “We’re not Luddites. We did it not to prevent the eventual development of self-driving cars, but to make sure that once that development does reshape our lives, it does so for the better because we’re ready.” He then cited a number of goals for each technology to achieve: “transparency in the development process,” “accountability and clarity on who’s in charge,” the “involvement of diverse communities every step of the way,” putting the right “preconditions in place to democratize access.” These objectives can serve as guiding principles for policymakers navigating increasingly complex trade-offs. 

  • Policymakers Experience With AI Technology
    For Assemblyman Vanel, part of keeping up to date entails having policymakers test these technologies themselves. With Bill A6896, he did just that. On paper, the Bill looks like a positive contribution to housing law: it requires landlords to provide tenants with copies of their lease agreement, twice a year, upon request. But the way in which the bill was written is just as, if not more, important than its content. As a thought exercise, Vanel asked Auto-GPT to find a gap in the state’s housing laws. The result was A.6896, which, Vanel explained, proves A.I. can be a useful tool for lawmakers themselves. “For most people, including decision-makers, the best way to understand and wrestle with these technologies is to use them in your day-to-day life, at work and at home.”

    The experiment showed Vanel the potential of the technology and its limits. “It couldn’t just think on its own or write a bill on its own; I had to put in goals and structure its actions for about an hour and a half,” Vanel explained. “But I asked A.I. if it could find a gap in the law, and I was surprised that it already could.” The lesson? While AI can already amplify our ability to undertake complex tasks, the human-machine combination remains more powerful than AI by itself, at least for now. 

  • AI Companies Working with Local Communities
    Vanel’s current priorities are to empower local AI companies and make sure that local communities “learn about AI, participate in its development, build it alongside entrepreneurs, and wrestle with it as early as possible.” The combination of these two elements is especially important because, as Vanel puts it, “while technology can help us create wealth more efficiently, better, faster, but if we don’t put the right rules in place, it could also expand the wealth gap beyond anything we’ve seen” -- particularly for women, people of color, and all of those who have historically been “excluded from the conversation.” From the well-documented biases of AI to its potentially unparalleled economic ramifications, it is “our responsibility to build the world we want to see.” 

  • White House AI Initiative
    As a model of engagement, Vanel cited a White House initiative that is currently bringing hackers to Vegas to address AI biases in a publicly funded hackathon. “This is a good example of how inclusion and innovation don’t have to be in tension. Here, you have top engineers working together to make the technology more inclusive while pushing the frontier further.” This kind of approach, Vanel said, is the future. 

  • Assemblyman Vanel’s Call-to-Action
    The discussion ended with a call to action. “On the whole,” Vanel admitted, “it’s undeniable that policy makers are more conservative” on technological questions. “That’s why it’s so important for you to talk to your senator, your representative, your assemblyperson, let them know what’s more important to you… because at the end of the day, if they don’t hear from you, it won’t be important to them.”

Watch this fascinating and wide-ranging conversation.

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