Congressman Moonlighting As A Master’s Degree Student In AI
from the life-long-learning dept
We’ve spent years criticizing many politicians, especially in Congress, for trying to regulate technology that they don’t seem to understand and often falling prey to wild moral panics about the technology. That’s why it’s quite refreshing to see this story that the Washington Post had in the waning days of 2022 about Rep. Don Beyer, who has represented a district in Northern Virginia since 2015, and whose hobby is… to be getting a masters degree in artificial intelligence from George Mason University.
That’s been the story of the year for Beyer… who has been moonlighting as a student at George Mason University in pursuit of a master’s degree in machine learning while balancing his duties as a congressman. Beyer — a science wonk, economist and former car salesman — has been taking one class per semester in a slow but steady march toward the degree, with hopes of one day applying his artificial-intelligence knowledge to his legislative work as the technology evolves further.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” the72-year-old Beyer said — although, “I was trying to think last night about the consequences. Number one is I read only two-thirds as many books this year. If I hit 53 I’ll be lucky, just because the time that I used to read books, I’m doing problems.”
He does his homework usually sometime between 9 and 11 at night, after he gets home from the Hill and before he hits the lights. He attended a Zoom class each Thursday night with many 18-year-olds who kept their cameras off and who in breakout small-group work sessions did not seem to know (or care?) that their classmate is a U.S. congressman. The proctor administering an exam in his pre-calc class this spring leaned in and whispered, “What are you doing here?” as Beyer handed in his test.
As the article notes, Beyer has long been interested in technology, and its ability to analyze data, and he became interested in taking the class after visiting the university and learning about its “innovation initiative,” and decided to sign up for the program.
The article notes that another Congressman, Jay Obernolte, who sits across the political aisle from Beyer* but who also has an AI masters degree (and who also got a doctorate while serving in the California legislature) will serve with Beyer on the “AI caucus” in Congress. And having both working together on these issues as people actually knowledgeable about the technology seems like a step up from the way that tech policy is often made.
But as the power of artificial intelligence and its uses grow, Obernolte said it will be worth it to have another member at the table with all that fresh knowledge — particularly as the AI caucus seeks to steer Congress down responsible avenues for regulating the technology and use of personal data.
“Some people who aren’t familiar with AI think that the biggest drawback of AI is evil robots with red laser eyes. You know what I mean?” Obernolte said. “You get closer to it and you realize that, no, there are actually drawbacks that are even more substantial than that, but they’re also more subtle. So we want to make sure that we approach the regulation of AI in a way that’s thoughtful, that does the protection of consumers and privacy that needs to be done, but also doesn’t stifle the innovation and entrepreneurialism that has characterized the last 50 years of the technology industry in America.”
Overall, I think this is great. I don’t think everyone in Congress should be going back and getting graduate degrees, but two things I do think are super important are lifelong learning as well as having lawmakers who actually understand complex and nuanced issues and trade-offs as it relates to technology. So it’s nice to see a story that actually shows an elected official who believes in that as well.
* As a reminder, Techdirt does not name politicians’ political parties unless its core to the story, because otherwise many people focus entirely on that and make their judgments based on team colors rather than what’s actually happening.