An organization backed by Silicon Valley billionaires and tied to leading artificial intelligence firms is funding the salaries of more than a dozen AI fellows in key congressional offices, across federal agencies and at influential think tanks.
The fellows funded by Open Philanthropy, which is financed primarily by billionaire Facebook co-founder and Asana CEO Dustin Moskovitz and his wife Cari Tuna, are already involved in negotiations that will shape Capitol Hill’s accelerating plans to regulate AI. And they’re closely tied to a powerful influence network that’s pushing Washington to focus on the technology’s long-term risks — a focus critics fear will divert Congress from more immediate rules that would tie the hands of tech firms.
Acting through the little-known Horizon Institute for Public Service, a nonprofit that Open Philanthropy effectively created in 2022, the group is funding the salaries of tech fellows in key Senate offices, according to documents and interviews.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s top three lieutenants on AI legislation — Sens. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) and Todd Young (R-Ind.) — each have a Horizon fellow working on AI or biosecurity, a closely related issue. The office of Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a powerful member of the Senate Judiciary Committee who recently unveiled plans for an AI licensing regime, includes a Horizon AI fellow who worked at OpenAI immediately before coming to Congress, according to his bio on Horizon’s web site.
Current and former Horizon AI fellows with salaries funded by Open Philanthropy are now working at the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department, as well as in the House Science Committee and Senate Commerce Committee, two crucial bodies in the development of AI rules. They also populate key think tanks shaping AI policy, including the RAND Corporation and Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology, according to the Horizon web site. In 2022, Open Philanthropy set aside nearly $3 million to pay for what ultimately became the initial cohort of Horizon fellows.
Horizon is one piece of a sprawling web of AI influence that Open Philanthropy has built across Washington’s power centers. The organization — which is closely aligned with “effective altruism,” a movement made famous by disgraced FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried that emphasizes a data-driven approach to philanthropy — has also spent tens of millions of dollars on direct contributions to AI and biosecurity researchers at RAND, Georgetown’s CSET, the Center for a New American Security and other influential think tanks guiding Washington on AI.
In the high-stakes Washington debate over AI rules, Open Philanthropy has long been focused on one slice of the problem — the long-term threats that future AI systems might pose to human survival. Many AI thinkers see those as science-fiction concerns far removed from the current AI harms that Washington should address. And they worry that Open Philanthropy, in concert with its web of affiliated organizations and experts, is shifting the policy conversation away from more pressing issues — including topics some leading AI firms might prefer to keep off the policy agenda.
The network’s fixation on speculative harms is “almost like a caricature of the reality that we’re experiencing,” said Deborah Raji, an AI researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, who attended last month’s AI Insight Forum in the Senate. She worries that the focus on existential dangers will steer lawmakers away from addressing risks that today’s AI systems already pose, including their tendency to inject bias, spread misinformation, threaten copyright protections and weaken personal privacy. [Continue reading…]