Rep. Jay Obernolte is driving the AI conversation in Congress — and he’s optimistic about it – OCRegister

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Jay Obernolte was a seventh grader when his father came home with a transformative gift: an Apple II Plus computer and a book on how to learn to program.

It didn’t have a disk drive or cassette interface — those were expensive, he recalled — which meant nothing could be saved. Any program he had learned to write had to be retyped when he turned the computer on, starting from scratch.

That repetition, that inconvenience helped cement Obernolte’s life ambition to become a researcher in artificial intelligence.

It’s what he went to school to do, studying engineering and applied science at Caltech before pursuing a master’s degree in artificial intelligence from UCLA.

But instead of working away in an ivory tower of academia, Obernolte is leading the charge on AI policy in Congress, where professional athletes outnumber lawmakers with computer science degrees.

  • Rep. Jay Obernolte, R-Hesperia, looks out his office window on Friday, April 5, 2024 in Hesperia. (Photo by Anjali Sharif-Paul, The Sun/SCNG)

  • Rep. Jay Obernolte, R-Hesperia, smiles as he remembers about his early days as a developer on Friday, April 5, 2024 at his office in Hesperia. (Photo by Anjali Sharif-Paul, The Sun/SCNG)

  • Rep. Jay Obernolte, R-Hesperia, speaks about the dangers of advanced artificial intelligence on Friday, April 5, 2024 at his office in Hesperia. (Photo by Anjali Sharif-Paul, The Sun/SCNG)

  • Rep. Jay Obernolte, R-Hesperia, laughs as he speaks about his early days as a developer on Friday, April 5, 2024 in Hesperia. (Photo by Anjali Sharif-Paul, The Sun/SCNG)

Coming into Congress, where he represents a district that spans San Bernardino, Los Angeles and Kern counties, Obernolte figured his knowledge and background in the tech world would prove to be a resource to his colleagues like it was when he served in the California Legislature for six years. Early on, he was a leader in digital data privacy legislation.

“He’s really gifted in explaining all of that to those of us who aren’t tech-savvy, in real people terms,” said state Senate Minority Leader Brian Jones, R-San Diego.

But what Obernolte didn’t immediately foresee, he said, was how much AI would explode.

When it became apparent that a federal framework was needed for regulating the emerging industry, Obernolte, a Republican, approached then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy to establish a working group. And through tumultuous leadership changes and legislative stalemates galore in Congress, the Task Force on Artificial Intelligence was created — and the two dozen lawmakers on it are already getting to work.

Obernolte believes AI’s impact on the world will ultimately be larger than that of the internet.

“I think we’re at the same place as we were at the birth of the internet, where no one really could really conceptualize all the changes that were going to occur as a result of the internet. The idea that we’d all be walking around in 2024 with a supercomputer in our pocket, being able to instantly get access to communications across the world and, by the way, order a pizza on DoorDash, you just couldn’t have conceptualized that, but yet now here we are,” he said. “I think that’s going to prove true of AI as well.”

So regulation is needed, he said, to mitigate any potential harms AI could cause to society. But that’s not to say there aren’t already some regulations in place.

And he’s using Europe as a guide — for what not to do.

There, the massive law approved by the European Union is meant to take a “risk-based approach” to AI, the Associated Press reported. Systems deemed to be “high risk” have additional regulations or are outright banned under the AI Act.

“The reason for regulating AI is pretty clear,” Obernolte said. “We want to mitigate the potential harms that AI can cause to our society and our constituents.” But if lawmakers “are regulating just for the purpose of regulation, you’ve embarked on a fool’s errand,” he said.

The EU’s model, he said, “is creating a bunch of new regulations that, in a lot of ways, don’t do anything to protect from potential harms, and that has the unfortunate consequence of hindering innovation, of preventing entrepreneurialism and of preventing some of the potential benefits AI could bring to the people of Europe.”

“I think we can achieve a balance between mitigating the harms that need to be mitigated and still allowing the positive benefits of AI to flow through to the people we represent,” said Obernolte.

And he believes his task force is equipped to do just that.

From designing video games to drafting legislation

Like many members of Congress, Obernolte, 53, started off as a local politician, first on the Big Bear City Airport District board of directors and then as a member and mayor of the Big Bear Lake City Council.

“He’s definitely conservative,” said Big Bear Lake City Councilmember Rick Herrick, who served with Obernolte on the council. “We’ve had plenty of discussions over dinner about conservative issues. But he’s so pragmatic about his objective, which is getting things done. Which is why he’s so good about navigating political issues.”

Obernolte represented rural and mountain communities in San Bernardino County in the Assembly from 2014 to 2020 before his election to the House of Representatives in 2020.

But he’s unusual in other ways. Obernolte is one of only four software company executives in the House of Representatives. His company, FarSight Studios, produces video games for mobile devices, video consoles and virtual reality headsets.

He founded the company in his Caltech dorm room and later hit pause on the doctorate in AI he was working on when his first video game —  “David Crane’s Amazing Tennis” where players could embark on exhibition and tournament competitions — became a surprise success.

Even in the Assembly, Obernolte was the go-to guy for tech issues, said former Assemblymember Don Wagner, who served with Obernolte in the lower chamber. While they don’t keep in touch too much anymore — save for the annual happy birthday texts — Wagner said he isn’t surprised that Obernolte’s tech-savvy reputation followed him to Congress.

“He’s an incredibly smart guy,” said Wagner, now an Orange County supervisor.

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Politics for Obernolte came because of a sense of obligation to make the community, and the world, a better place for his children.

“When I looked at my children and I asked them what their mission was, they said, ‘We see you as the American dream, and we want to do what you’ve done and start a business doing something we’re passionate about,’” he said. “And yet, we know the business environment in California is much more difficult now than it was when I started my business 30 years ago. I don’t think it would be possible for them to do what I have done even if they work every bit as hard as I had worked.”

In Big Bear Lake, Sacramento and now Washington, Obernolte has stood out in his record for working across the aisle, prioritizing getting things done with people he might otherwise not agree with over scoring political points.

As they did in Big Bear Lake, Obernolte and his wife Heather helped develop those relationships by holding regular dinner parties in Sacramento, where they’d break bread with both Democratic and Republican legislators.

“That helped break down some of those barriers in communication,” Jones said.

The couple has begun hosting similar dinners in Washington, including one with Rep. Sydney Kamlager-Dove, D-Los Angeles.

“Congressman Obernolte and I have been working on tech policy together dating back to our days in the state legislature,” said Kamlager-Dove. “If Congress is going to tackle complex issues like AI, we need to be able to work together in a bipartisan fashion, and I know I have a partner in Congressman Obernolte — he comes determined to find solutions and is always willing to work across the aisle.”

Emphasis on bipartisanship, at least in part, led to Obernolte being one of the most productive Republicans in Sacramento. Still, in D.C., however, his voting record leans steadily right.

Evangelizing for AI

There’s a lot of unknowns about artificial intelligence. And that begets a lot of fear, Obernolte said.

Some concerns — like how AI will impact jobs, how it could facilitate the spread of disinformation — are valid, Obernolte said. But others, like the possibility of an army of robots rising up to take over the world, don’t exactly keep regulators up at night, he said.

Obernolte, though, is an optimist. And that positivity drives his view of how AI can be used — and even regulated.

“A lot of people don’t realize the opportunity that we have here,” said Obernolte. “AI is already an incredibly powerful tool for enhancing human productivity, and I think it will also be the most efficient way of sharing information with each other that mankind has ever come up with.”

Throughout the history of the U.S., Obernolte said, the country’s gross domestic product expands in tandem with an increase in American worker productivity. But labor productivity in recent years has been in a decline, he said, pointing to the COVID-19 pandemic as one culprit.

“I believe that AI is the next big catalyst that will create a rising wave of prosperity that literally lifts all the boats,” said Obernolte.

“I know that there is a lot of angst about things like job displacement, and I don’t blame people for being nervous about that,” he continued. “Technological innovations always create disruption, but disruption doesn’t always have to be a negative thing.”

And part of the equation to keeping AI positive is his congressional working group. It’s made up of Republicans and Democrats, progressives and conservatives, members with various policy backgrounds.

That means disagreements and problems about AI-related issues can be handled upfront, he said, leaving the members, once an agreement is reached, to go forth and evangelize their proposals throughout the House.

“I’m an optimist,” Obernolte said.

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