Skip to content

Bipartisan Congressional Bill Supports AI Literacy Training

In November 2023 our sister site BSchools covered a new survey by edX that showed how most American companies were failing to provide training in some of the most basic artificial intelligence literacy skills for their employees—and even for their chief executives. Now it appears that Congress might be preparing to intervene.

Late that December, U.S. Representatives Lisa Blunt Rochester of Delaware and Dr. Larry Bucshon of Indiana introduced H.R. 6791, draft legislation they call the “Artificial Intelligence Literacy Act.” In short, the bill would codify AI literacy as a key component of digital literacy and create opportunities to integrate AI literacy into existing programs at the federal, state, and local levels. The legislation defines AI literacy as an understanding of the technology’s fundamental principles, applications, limitations, and ethical considerations.

“It’s no secret that the use of artificial intelligence has skyrocketed over the past few years, playing a key role in the ways we learn, work, and interact with one another. Like any emerging technology, AI presents us with incredible opportunities along with unique challenges,” said Representative Blunt Rochester in a statement.

“That’s why I’m proud to introduce the bipartisan AI Literacy Act with my colleague, Representative Bucshon. By ensuring that AI literacy is at the heart of our digital literacy program, we’re ensuring that we cannot only mitigate the risk of AI but seize the opportunity it creates to help improve the way we learn and the way we work.”

How the AI Literacy Act Leverages 2021’s Digital Equity Act

The representatives designed the legislation to fund artificial intelligence literacy efforts nationwide at colleges and universities, public schools, community libraries, and nonprofits by amending the Digital Equity Act of 2021 (DEA). That’s a key component of the Biden Administration’s massive “Build Back Better” Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

The DEA had allocated $2.75 billion in state and local grants to make broadband connectivity and digital devices more accessible. In essence, H.R. 6791 would amend the DEA also to fund grants for AI literacy that teach essential skills and build workforce preparedness. Specifically, the bill would enable support for AI literacy through grants funded by another program that’s currently operating: the $1.25 billion Digital Equity Competitive Grant program.

Equitable Aspects of AI Literacy

The representatives also appear to be using the language within the bill as a platform to advance an interesting justification for AI literacy efforts that have received little press coverage: the equitable aspects of AI literacy. The lawmakers write that “efforts in AI literacy can help to bridge stark differences in attainment across demographic groups.” They explain:

In 2021, Black students made up only 7.5 percent of AI-related bachelor’s degrees despite making up 14 percent of the population. While women account for 60 percent of college graduates, they constitute only 40 percent of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics graduates and 25 percent of graduates in AI fields.

Political and Fiscal Advantages

This bill offers several political advantages. For example, the legislation benefits from bipartisan support led by Blunt Rochester, a Democrat, and Bucshon, a Republican. Moreover, a coalition of at least 30 interest groups and stakeholders has endorsed the bill, including the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education, American Association of Community Colleges, and a 1.7-million-member AFL-CIO labor union, the American Federation of Teachers. The business community, led by Intel Corporation and SHRM, the Society for Human Resource Management, has also signed on.

The legislation also benefits from a smart strategy by the bill’s sponsors. The bill’s fiscal impact doesn’t earmark any new funds for teaching artificial intelligence skills but simply authorizes new objectives to modify big-budget legislation that was already funded almost three years ago. According to coverage by Education Week’s assistant editor Alyson Klein, “Republican leaders in the House of Representatives are bent on reining in spending and unlikely to embrace legislation that calls for new money.”

Both Blunt Rochester and Bucshon hold assignments on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. However, the bill appears to be stalled in that committee’s Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, still waiting for a hearing. That lack of momentum might have stemmed from the bill’s introduction late in December 2023 just before the holiday break, which resulted in relatively little press coverage.

Microsoft’s AI Literacy Training for the AFL-CIO

The federal government moves slowly, and some organizations aren’t willing to wait for Congress to authorize AI literacy skills training. The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) appears to be one of them.

In December 2023, the world’s largest labor union coalition with 12.5 million members announced a “historic” artificial intelligence-focused partnership with Microsoft that attracted extensive coverage from the business press. AFL-CIO President Liz Schuler summarized the deal’s purpose as “to expand workers’ role in the creation of worker-centered design, workforce training, and trustworthy AI practices.”

Although the term “AI literacy” is never specifically mentioned in either Microsoft or the AFL-CIO press release about the deal, and although those releases are vague and sparse on details, there’s still no question that AI literacy training for union members comprises a major element of this partnership.

According to the AFL-CIO’s statement, starting in 2024, Microsoft’s AI experts will conduct AI-focused training sessions for the AFL-CIO’s leadership, workers, and students. The company agrees to provide them with “critical information and insights” about AI technology as it evolves and to provide “formal learning opportunities” on recent and prospective developments in artificial intelligence. The statement continues:

This will begin with learning sessions that will take place during the winter of 2024 facilitated by Microsoft’s AI experts, who will provide information about how AI works and where it’s going, outline its opportunities, and analyze the potential challenges. These sessions will be augmented by on-demand digital resources that labor leaders and workers can access online. Working with the American Federation of Teachers, Microsoft will explore joint opportunities for career and technical education work that prepares students for high-paying jobs of tomorrow.

Microsoft’s AI experts will also lead “deep-dive and experiential workshops starting in 2024 through 2026 that will be tailored to specific careers and roles.” However, it’s not clear precisely what workers will learn in those workshops, and the statement offers no examples illustrating what some of those careers and jobs might be.

Nevertheless, Work Shift’s Margaret Moffett argues that “given the AFL-CIO’s 12 million members, the partnership has the potential to become the largest single effort to boost AI literacy within the U.S. workforce.” She also quotes Jobs for the Future’s Managing Director Alex Swartsel, who’s leading JFF’s launch of a new Center for Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Work.

Swartsel believes that at this juncture, such AI literacy efforts are critical. She told Work Shift that the partnership between the AFL-CIO and Microsoft has “extraordinary potential” to help Americans start preparing now for major changes on the horizon from generative AI, even though they might not actually experience such changes for years to come.

“Hopefully it will lead to not just more people having access to these skills, but to better technology, which is what we all need and will benefit from down the road,” Swartsel says.

Besides providing union members with expert AI literacy training, the partnership sets forth two other objectives. First, the deal provides a mechanism for labor leaders and workers to share their feedback, experiential insights, and concerns directly with Microsoft’s AI technology developers. Second, it also provides a collaborative framework so that the AFL-CIO and Microsoft can collaborate to propose and support government policies enabling workers to thrive in an AI-driven economy.

The partnership also broadens a unionization neutrality agreement between the AFL-CIO’s 700,000-member Communications Workers of America and Microsoft. Through that agreement, hundreds of the firm’s video game workers unionized in 2023 without an election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board.

Under this unprecedented new arrangement, about 100,000 more workers could unionize without Microsoft’s interference. This unique neutrality pledge stands in sharp contrast to the aggressive anti-union policies and activities of almost all other technology firms, including those of Microsoft’s Seattle neighbor, Amazon.

In addition, concerns that artificial intelligence might replace workers have intensified ever since ChatGPT launched on November 30, 2022. Two recent polls highlight these issues.

An August 2023 AFL-CIO poll revealed that a whopping 70 percent of Americans worry that AI will displace workers, with women workers especially concerned about AI’s potential to exacerbate workplace inequity. And in a fall 2023 Nielsen survey of 3,000 United States workers reported by NBC News, although about 36 percent said AI platforms might make their jobs easier, more than 50 percent expressed concerns that tools like ChatGPT will “reduce their professional opportunities.”

Douglas Mark

While a partner in a San Francisco marketing and design firm, for over 20 years Douglas Mark wrote online and print content for the world’s biggest brands, including United Airlines, Union Bank, Ziff Davis, Sebastiani and AT&T.

Since his first magazine article appeared in MacUser in 1995, he’s also written on finance and graduate business education in addition to mobile online devices, apps, and technology. He graduated in the top 1 percent of his class with a business administration degree from the University of Illinois and studied computer science at Stanford University.