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Finegold: ‘A Relentless Advocate on Their Behalf’

Tewksbury’s senator is focused on mental health, data privacy, AI regulation

This continues the Carnation’s series of Q&As with Tewksbury elected officials. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Senator Barry Finegold represents the Middlesex and Second Essex Districts in the Mass. State Senate. He has been in this position since 2019, after previously serving from 2011-2015, and is also on the Temporary Senate Committee on Ways and Means. Finegold’s district was reconfigured last year, when he lost Lawrence and Dracut. He now represents Amesbury, Andover, Haverhill, Merrimac, North Andover, Tewksbury and Wilmington.

Ali Lightfield: So, first of all, congratulations on a big win. You took all seven towns, including your opponent’s home turf, so very impressive. Now how will you move ahead, balancing the needs of your new and very diverse district?

Barry Finegold: I’m just gonna do what we’ve always done: Work really hard, listen to the people and just try to be a relentless advocate on their behalf. 

AL: That’s the future, but as for the past, how did you get your start in politics?

BF: You know, I basically come from it. Both my parents are teachers, so it’s in my blood. And I was just fortunate at the time I started, you know, I ran for office and I was fortunate to get elected. Public service clearly runs in my family, and I just wanted to help people.

AL: That sounds interesting. In the past you’ve been supportive of a bill that would ban mascots that use the name or likeness of Native Americans, which has now been filed in the House and Senate for upcoming legislation. Do you have any thoughts on whether you think it may pass this time unlike the past few years?

BF: I don’t know whether it’s going to pass for sure this time.

AL: And can you elaborate on your feelings on the bill?

BF: At this point, I’m not sure where the bill is going. 

AL: You’ve also recently backed the SAVE Students Act, which pushes for safety and violence education for students. What do you think the benefit will be from this act? 

Note: This bill seeks to address the issues of school violence and teen suicide by expanding violence prevention and suicide awareness programming in schools. It creates an anonymous reporting system for tips related to student safety concerns and tasks the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) with developing a model threat assessment policy for responding to dangerous activity.

BF: I think the bottom line is that we will be able to — I’m hopeful — get more people to get involved and speak up when they see someone is going to do harm to themselves or do harm to others. So, that’s why I think it’s important that this bill passed because we’ve seen a high rate of suicide, we’ve seen a high rate of people doing harm to others, and I think this bill will go a long way.

AL: I also noticed that you backed a lot of acts that prioritize mental health resources and education. So what drew you to the subject?

BF: There’s just a large amount of people that, especially dealing with a pandemic, have dealt with mental health issues, and I think we need to make sure that we have the resources out there to help people. We’ve also filed a bill that deals with veterans with PTSD. And I think that’s also important – to make sure that our veterans get the care they need as well, when it comes to health issues.

AL: Do you support putting Tewksbury on the PILOT program as outlined by the Auditor’s office rather than using earmarks to fund our second ambulance?

BF: Yes, I think that’s something that we’re gonna continue to work on.

AL: And are there any new projects in the works that you’d like to give us some insight into?

BF: I think we’re going to continue to try to bring money back for education, or try to bring more money back for sidewalks. Just trying to make sure that we help [towns] with their infrastructure and also educational needs.

In a follow-up interview, Finegold’s Communications Director, Yvette Sei, discussed an upcoming bill that would regulate the use of the OpenAI engine, ChatGPT.

AL: Thank you so much for talking with me. So, you mentioned legislation about ChatGPT?

Yvette Sei: Senator Finegold filed a piece of legislation to help regulate some of the new generative AI technologies, including ChatGPT, to clarify the rules of the road for businesses and establish a regulatory framework. It was actually featured in The Washington Post and the Boston Globe. Folks were really interested in it. It’s essentially a set of guardrails. I don’t know if you saw that New York Public Schools actually banned ChatGPT because there are risks associated with plagiarism. So, this just seeks to get ahead of some of the things that we anticipate coming out of artificial intelligence.

The legislation would essentially require AI companies to register with the Attorney General. It would require regular risk assessments by companies to identify reasonably foreseeable risks and cognizable harms from their AI models. It would require companies to implement reasonable security measures to prevent discrimination against protected classes. It’s something that we’re really concerned about, I think, if the software is pulled from the internet at large, there’s always the possibility for some of the discrimination that we see in the world to sort of seep into that. So we’re just making sure that protected classes are protected. And then we’re always making sure that they do identify information as appropriate. The Senator has a larger data privacy portfolio, and a bunch of legislation that he’s filed this session. This sort of comes as a piece of that.

Note: Finegold recently backed the Massachusetts Information Privacy and Security Act (MIPSA), which aims to address issues arising from companies compiling and selling massive amounts of sensitive information, with little oversight.

And the last thing, which I think is sort of the key, is some sort of watermark or authentication process embedded in the text so we can certify when something has come from ChatGPT. I think the senator feels like there’s a lot of potential that can come from this. There’s a lot of good this technology can do, but we have to make sure that folks are not using it to plagiarize. So that’s kind of the general overview. 

AL: Yeah, that sounds really smart. I know people in my school have been suggesting, like, “Oh, you don’t want to do the homework? Just use ChatGPT!”

YS: Yeah, exactly. I mean, it’s hard. I think it can be a resource and I think it can be really helpful, but folks will definitely abuse it if we let them run wild, right? 

AL: How have you come up with this sort of legislation? Have you been seeing an increase in ChatGPT, or has it been a concern in the past? 

YS: Yeah, I think Barry heard about it because a friend of his texted him and said, “You have to check this out.” And I think a ton of people are using it. Actually, the bill was partially drafted by ChatGPT itself. Justin Curtis, who’s our chief of staff, said to use ChatGPT for all of the prompts. He said it took a while for the software to even become available. Their servers are so full because so many folks really want to get a hold of the technology. 

So that was an interesting challenge. At first it did not want to accept and basically spat back out, “I’m an AI. It’s not my job to write legislation, I’m not equipped.” But after some nudging, and some more specific prompting from Justin as to exactly what we wanted in the bill, it did spit out about 70% their initial draft of the bill. You know, it wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t something that we were going to file as is, but I think it got a surprising amount of the way through writing legislation.

And I just mentioned this because I think it’s hilarious — he wanted to put a disclaimer in the bill, just so folks would know that it was written by ChatGPT and that everyone was aware that we used AI to write it. But the AI fired back at us in a way that cracks me up. At the very bottom of the bill, it added its own disclaimer that said, “This act has been drafted with the assistance of ChatGPT. Any errors or inaccuracies in the bill should not be attributed to the language model, but rather to its human authors.” So we were seeking to give it a disclaimer that ChatGPT had been involved, and it kind of took that and ran with it in a way that, honestly, cracked me up. 

AL: Yeah, that seems very much like how it is in movies. You know, the robot overlords.

YS: Talk back. Yeah, totally. It’s pretty amazing how smart this thing is. And, like I said, it wrote about 70% of this legislation, which, we’re not there yet, but it’s pretty incredible. 

AL: So do you think that ChatGPT is kind of setting a precedent for the future of AI? And do you think that this will continue into future legislative operations?

YS: I do. I think the fact that Microsoft is investing in something like $10 billion in the company really speaks to its potential and speaks to how transformative this technology is going to be. I think it can be a useful tool. Not every legislative office is fully staffed. Not every state has the funding to have a fully staffed office, and then often legislators are hard pressed to file everything they want. I think this could be a great tool to help legislators manage their workloads. Like I said, it can’t take over for humans and — in my own personal opinion — I don’t know that it ever will. But the fact that it can help lift the load, I think, is going to be really transformative.

AL: Well, thank you for telling me about this. Is there anything else that you’d like the readers to know?

YS: Just that it’s a part of that larger package of internet privacy bills. I think it’s something that the senator is really invested in. He chairs the committee on the internet and cybersecurity, at least he did last session, and we’ll see if that continues this session. But the Massachusetts Information, Privacy and Security Act is another really big piece that we’re working on to help protect folks online, especially younger folks.

I think things like ChatGPT can be abused, and that’s why we’re setting guardrails. There’s a lot online, especially in terms of data collection and processing, that can be abused. Geolocation data is one thing that really comes to mind if you’re making certain medical appointments. You don’t want your geolocation data to be shared, and then folks to inundate you with information about what options they feel you should and should not take. I think there’s a lot we need to do in terms of internet privacy and security. So, that’s a really big focus for the senator in this upcoming session.

This is the second in our Year in Preview spotlight series on local political leaders and issues. Also see our interview with Planning Board Chair Stephen Johnson, who has launched a run for Select Board.

Ali Lightfield is a sophomore at George Washington majoring in political communications. She is a political correspondent intern for the Tewksbury Carnation.

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