The Stanford University 'boot camp' teaching Congress about AI


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AI may be one of the few subjects capable of uniting Democrats and Republicans in Congress — at least in terms of their shared desire to learn more about the fast-moving technology. Next week, congressional staffers from both sides of the aisle in the House and the Senate will come together on Stanford University’s bucolic, 8,000-acre California campus — not to admire the campus’ Mission Revival and Romanesque architecture, or to party, but to attend the Congressional Boot Camp on AI , run by the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered AI (HAI).

The three-day course will school congressional attendees about all things artificial intelligence — with sessions unpacking what AI means for issues such as international security, the future of work, bias, privacy, and healthcare. It includes field trips to Stanford labs for interactive experiences, as well as lectures by Stanford University professors and leaders from Silicon Valley. Participants receive a Stanford University certificate of completion at the conclusion of the boot camp. 

As Senate and House move on AI regulation, education is key

As the Senate and House race to catch up to the speed of AI development and tackle possible regulation, they have a lot to learn about these complex technologies, as well as their benefits and risks. That means teaching senators, representatives and their staffs about everything from large language models (LLMs) and open source AI to AI safety, security and ethics issues.

Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) is already planning a crash course in AI for senators this fall, which will include at least nine forums with top experts on copyright, workforce issues, national security, high-risk AI models, existential risks, privacy, transparency and explainability as well as elections and democracy.

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The boot camp is about equipping participants with the information they need to think critically about regulating and governing AI, said Russell Wald, Stanford HAI’s managing director for policy and society,

“For us, it’s not trying to inform people and tell them what to do,” Wald told VentureBeat in an interview. “It’s more to give them the tools so that they can have the critical thinking and analysis that would come from a lot of this.” 

The first Stanford AI boot camp was held in 2019

Stanford HAI isn’t new to the “boot camp” concept to educate Congress — the first was held in 2014, and focused on cybersecurity. At the time, “there was just this lack of knowledge on cyber,” said Wald. “Someone on the Intelligence Committee told one of my colleagues something like, ‘If you can take us, on a one-to-10 scale, from a three to a five in terms of general knowledge on this topic, you’ve done the nation a service.” 

That led to the first AI-focused boot camp in 2019. “There was someone on the Ways and Means Committee that came to that program — now she’s the U.S. Trade Representative and a member of Biden’s cabinet,” said Wald, presumably referring to Katherine Tai

These days, the AI knowledge gap is still “fairly significant” among congressional staffers, he said, but added that there is a great desire to learn more. “There are people who are informed, but I also find that they’re in the midst of an evolving field,” he explained. “So for every minute that you feel like you might have it, something changes — they know it’s important, they know they need to learn a lot, so there’s a level of humility coming into this.” 

That’s important, Wald explained, because AI has now expanded to more jurisdictions beyond the science or technology committees in Congress. 

“[AI] is actually going to affect people’s lives; it’s going to affect health care, labor, you name it,” he said. “So in that sense, it’s going to require people to come to the table — you don’t need to be a technologist, but that doesn’t absolve you of [being] a thoughtful, active participant in [these issues].” 

A diverse cohort of congressional attendees learning about AI

The congressional staffers generally have to apply for the AI boot camp, which strives for diversity by race, gender, as well as party chamber. Wald said there was a “ton of interest” for 2023, a 40% increase in applications over last year.

The program draws those working in a congressperson’s personal office, he explained: For example, Congressman Dan Crenshaw (R-TX)’s legislative director attended last year, as well as staffers for Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Senator Padilla (D-CA) and the executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus. “You don’t want everyone coming from the Senate Intelligence Committee, right?” said Wald.

It’s also important that the group is bipartisan, he added. “It’s something I personally strive for — this is such a powerful technology, that if we’re going to let the vitriolic politics we seem to be surrounded by lead the way, that’s going to be a huge problem,” he said. “I’m not of the mindset of ‘we teach Democrats,’ or ‘we teach Republicans.’ We teach those who want to learn and help them understand.” 

That 2022 cohort heard from people such as Fei-Fei Li, professor of computer science at Stanford University and co-director of Stanford HAI; Peter Norvig, distinguished education fellow at Stanford HAI and director of research at Google; and Percy Liang, associate professor of computer science at Stanford and director of the Stanford Center for Research on Foundation Models. 

A multidisciplinary approach to AI education at Stanford

Wald said that the Stanford AI experts work hard to meet policymakers where they are, especially when they have so many issues on their plates. “It’s about, what are we doing to effectively reach them so that they are really informed by this?”

That’s one reason, Wald added, why Stanford does not do the AI boot camp in Washington, D.C. 

“I won’t do it in D.C. because life is going to intervene,” Wald explained. “All of a sudden it’s like, ‘My kid has a cold today’ — there’s a huge difference in commitment when you say you’re getting on a plane and you’re going to come out here.” 

The curriculum begins with a baseline tutorial on what AI technology is. “We’re not telling people to get their laptops out — we’re going to start building a model,” Wald said. “Those kinds of programs are actually counterproductive. We’re teaching them to understand what the technology is, what it can and cannot do, and its impact on society — that’s what we really want them to come out of this with.” 

Wald admits that Senate and House staffers also have access to learning about AI from Big Tech companies like Microsoft and Google. But, he said, there are significant differences.

“One, we’re an academic institution, so we teach people,” he said. “But also, Microsoft is ultimately going to be a product lab — their goal is to have commercially viable products that are going to be beneficial to a market. We have many professors who have unique, specific domain experience, so [what we offer is] multidisciplinary, looking at things from a very wide perspective.” 

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