MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (WV News) — Both of West Virginia’s U.S. senators are uniquely positioned to help the state be competitive in the race to maximize the potential of artificial intelligence.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., serves on the Communications, Media and Broadband Subcommittee of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, while Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., is chair of the Senate Cybersecurity Subcommittee.

Both senators recently spoke during the annual Focus Forward conference in Morgantown, sharing their perspectives on the need for legislation to provide adequate guardrails for AI.

AI is “very, very” much on the minds of Washington lawmakers, Capito said.

“We’ve had seminars to learn what AI means and what it can do and all the different reaches of it,” she said. “It is amazing the vast reach of AI. But also, for us as policymakers, the troubling aspect of it is: Can you regulate? Do you regulate? And does the regulation squash innovation? Does it keep it too wide open? Does it make it more susceptible to for younger people? Is cybersecurity taken into consideration?”

If West Virginia wants to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to emerging tech like AI, it must first play catch-up and bolster its broadband internet connectivity, Capito said.

West Virginia is the recipient of one of the largest tranches of funds for broadband expansion included in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act of 2021, Capito said.

“In that is a major investment in the state — it’s over $1 billion,” she said. “That investment is supposed to go to two very critical groups in our state: the unserved and the underserved.”

The state’s share of broadband expansion funds is expected to bring high-speed internet capabilities to more than 271,000 West Virginia households, Capito said.

“It’s going to be a bright day when we can quit talking about who’s connected and who isn’t,” she said. “Someday we’re not going to have to discussing that. We’re going to be discussing how it’s used in AI, how it has improved the life and lifestyles of so many people in our state.”

The emergence of AI presents challenges similar to those experienced at the dawn of the internet age, Manchin said.

“We found through the mistakes that were made that we never put guardrails up that would protect society as a whole. Anything and everything could get on there, and there was no filter,” he said. “So we’re trying to prevent making that same mistake with artificial intelligence.”

AI has the potential to shape and change countless economic sectors and industries for the better, Manchin said.

“We know with AI all the good it can do,” he said. “Health care, quality of life, food production, the defense of our country and our energy supply. But if it’s in the wrong hands for the wrong purpose, it can lead you into things that can be just as destructive as they are for the improvements it can make.”

Just hours after Capito and Manchin spoke at Focus Forward, West Virginia took a preliminary step toward establishing AI policies. Gov. Jim Justice signed into law House Bill 5690, which will establish the West Virginia Task Force on Artificial Intelligence.

The task force will be charged with a wide array of tasks associated with using, implementing and regulating AI in the state.

These include determining the relevant state agencies to develop and oversee AI policies, recommending legislation to protect individual rights, civil liberties and consumer data, and recommending model policies for schools to address the use of artificial intelligence by students in the classroom.

HB 5690 originated in the House Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence, which was established during this year’s regular legislative session.

The select committee’s members heard from Amy Cyphert, a WVU College of Law lecturer who teaches a class on AI and the law, during a meeting in January.

Although President Joe Biden issued an executive order on AI in October, there has yet to be any substantive federal legislation regulating AI, Cyphert said.

“I have a lot of empathy for state legislators who are essentially acting in a federal vacuum,” she said. “We need strong federal leadership on this. Just like with data privacy, it really should be something where I think there’s strong federal leadership and then states are sort of able to contour the edges.”

Lawmakers must consider the enormous potential of AI while also keeping in mind all its the potential dangers and concerns, Cyphert said.

“This is part of what’s so hard about regulation. How do we thread the needle of minimizing the bad while allowing the good to happen?” she said.