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Amy Klobuchar
Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota told NOTUS the Scarlett Johansson episode was “another example of why we have to put rules in place” on artificial intelligence. Alex Brandon/AP

Senators Say Scarlett Johansson’s AI Debacle Shows Why We Need New AI Laws

Senators told NOTUS that the controversy surrounding whether Scarlett Johansson’s voice was used as the template for a new artificial intelligence chat function is “the perfect teachable moment.”

After Scarlett Johansson claimed last night that OpenAI had stolen her voice for a new artificial intelligence feature, lawmakers were on the offensive Tuesday, using the episode as a case in point for the need to regulate the emerging technology.

“It is another example of why we have to put rules in place for the protection of people’s voices, the protection of their beings, the protection of our democracy,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar told NOTUS on Tuesday.

She said the controversy was just another reason why she and her colleagues were “working on provisions that I hope would be included in any framework.”

In a statement posted on X last night, Johansson said OpenAI CEO Sam Altman had reached out to her, requesting to license her voice for the ChatGPT system this past September. Altman has said the movie “Her” — where a man falls in love with the voice of his personal AI assistant, played by Johansson — is his favorite movie. And he has called Johansson’s voice “comforting.” (She declined to be part of the project.)

Two days before the new AI voice product was released, Altman reached out to Johansson again. But before she could respond, the product dropped.

Johansson alleges the voice sounds “eerily similar” to hers. And Altman even posted the word “her” on his X last week.

Senators like Klobuchar have been sounding the alarm about the negative impact AI could have if it’s not properly regulated. Alongside Sens. Chris Coons, Thom Tillis and Marsha Blackburn, she sponsored the NO FAKES Act, released as a discussion draft last year. The proposal would protect the voice and visual likeness of individuals from unauthorized recreations from AI.

Asked what Congress could do to address situations like the Johansson episode, Coons told NOTUS on Tuesday that the NO FAKES Act would be a good first step.

“This is exactly what it’s designed to address,” Coons said. “This is the perfect teachable moment to help explain to folks how even Scarlett Johansson can face the theft of their voice or style or image and struggle to prevent its use.”

Tillis said the NO FAKES legislation would be a “step in the right direction.”

“We got to strike the balance,” Tillis said. “You don’t want to slow down AI innovation in the United States where a significant amount of investment is, but you also do not want to stifle the creative community to a point where you lose them.”

Marsha Blackburn, Thom Tillis
Sen. Marsha Blackburn and Sen. Thom Tillis arrive for a classified briefing at the Capitol. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Klobuchar is also spearheading three bills that manage AI and its risks to elections. Collectively, the legislation prohibits deceptive AI materials in federal elections, mandates AI use disclosures for political ads and requires the Election Assistance Commission to develop guidelines to address the uses and risks of AI when it comes to the ballot box.

Klobuchar said what happened to Johansson “really illustrates” why Congress needs to act on this issue when it comes to political ads.

“We got those through committee,” Klobuchar said of her bills. “And we just really can’t wait until after November.”

Sen. Todd Young, who co-authored a bipartisan AI framework with Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, said the incident didn’t warrant a departure from order. He said his framework “provided some direction on the different issues, and we did endorse certain legislative proposals in the road map.”

But that framework has received extensive criticism, largely over how it generally favors the tech industry. Last week, Sen. Josh Hawley told NOTUS he was “very disappointed” in the “framework thing.”

“I mean, it’s like there’s nothing to it. There’s no guardrails. There’s no real rules of any kind. It just funnels money towards these companies here,” he said.

Sen. Brian Schatz, who posted on X about the incident last night, said “at a minimum,” anything produced by generative AI should be disclosed as such. “I don’t think that’s a complicated proposition or a controversial one,” he added.

Johansson, for her part, called for new regulations. “I look forward to resolution in the form of transparency and the passage of appropriate legislation to help ensure that individual rights are protected,” she said.

“I was shocked, angered and in disbelief that Mr. Altman would pursue a voice that sounded so eerily similar to mine that my closest friends and news outlets could not tell the difference,” she wrote.

Asked about the incident on Tuesday, Sen. Laphonza Butler of California said artificial intelligence was going to be “an incredible disruptor.”

“It’s why I worked with Senator Klobuchar and the Rules Committee to make sure that we were studying this issue as the technology gets deployed,” she said.

Still, not everyone was as serious about the topic. Democratic Sen. John Fetterman of Pennsylvania didn’t want to comment on the specific Johansson incident, but he did provide another voice option for an AI chat function: himself.

“If AI wants to use my voice, I’d be honored,” Fetterman told NOTUS. “I don’t know if they would do that, but it’s like, ‘Hey! I’m volunteering!’”

Nuha Dolby is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.