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.

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Comments on “Congressman Moonlighting As A Master’s Degree Student In AI”

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Samuel Abram (profile) says:

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.

*Cue Matthew Bennett calling you a partisan hack in 3…2…1…*

Anonymous Coward says:

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.

Don’t worry. There is enough ground in the Technology arena that they can still not get the subtleties right.

For example, the owner of Twitter has a BA in physics…

Max says:

Well yes except...

In theory, this should sound great except that a) AI is definitely not an established thing you can just “learn about” (yeah you’re welcome to learn about the EXTREMELY controversial stuff that’s being done in the field, except it has EXACTLY the same relevance as fusion power generation to the current power grid) and b) at that venerable age, with all due respect, whatever you don’t already know is not going to concern you for long enough to learn it (or especially make decisions about it).

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Rocky says:

Re:

AI is an established field and machine learning especially so. If you don’t think so, you better inform the hundreds of universities and schools all over the world providing class for the subject. And what’s even more fascinating with your statement is that you don’t actually understand how much AI and machine learning have been used for years now in a multitude of industries.

Your statement about old people, with all due respect, is pure bullshit. The very article you respond proves that you are full it which makes me ask, how many books do you read the last year while having a fulltime job and taking a course in AI? If it is less than 53, then you have proved that you can’t even keep up with a guy that’s 72 years old.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anathema Device (profile) says:

Ageism sucks

“whatever you don’t already know is not going to concern you for long enough to learn it”

What an appallingly ignorant statement. Who put you in charge of the maximum age for education? At what point do people have to switch off their brains because learning something new is just a waste of time?

I’m 60. I have three degrees, and don’t feel like doing any more formal education since I’m retired. But I’m learning all the time, deliberately inquiring about things I don’t know, watching YouTube videos, reading blogs, listening to podcasts. I spent several hours today trying to wrangle an effect in watercolours I’m trying to master.

What use is any of this? Not much. I’m not going to make a career in art, or intern for Ken White, or get into programming Linux at this stage in my life. But my interest in things, and life, is undiminished, and so long as it is, I intend to keep learning.

Shove your ageist views up your arse. I hope when you’re 72, people treat you as condescendingly and dismissively as you’ve opined about Rep Beyer.

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James Burkhardt (profile) says:

Re:

There are certainly free college advocates who argue for means testing, or that it should be limited to undergrad studies, but personally?

Yes, yes, a hundred times yes. Even in these situations where we don’t just get free college, im frankly willing to provide a stipend for online college education for politicians to learn industry basics.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I think the education system failed to meet even the most basic of goals in some areas. This is only high schools. You know. That place where they learn.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atlanta_Public_Schools_cheating_scandal

https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/news/new-principal-failing-baltimore-school-accused-grade-changing-previous-job

https://www.cbsnews.com/chicago/news/2-investigators-high-school-allegedly-used-grade-cheating-to-pass-students/

https://www.mlive.com/news/grand-rapids/2022/02/principal-changed-students-grades-including-his-own-kids-for-years-school-investigation-shows.html

https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=18613843

What you see is what you get. They would lose all of their funding if they were honest. That spans decades too.

It makes imposter syndrome hilarious.

It makes this weeks disease excuse too funny as well.

https://www.cbsnews.com/video/public-schools-being-shuttered-as-enrollment-declines/

I would not send my kids to public schools to be educated.

I do agree with learning at every age, so the prior centuries methodologies of shoving learning into childhood is failing in the modern world is showing the limitations of monkey see, monkey do.

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