Lawmakers Worry the U.S. is Losing Its Edge in Artificial Intelligence

 Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va.

Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va. Andrew Harnik/AP

Shrinking budgets today may have costs down the line, lawmakers said.

Lawmakers worry declining federal research and development dollars could stunt the development of new artificial intelligence tools and set the country back in the race for global dominance in the emerging technology.

“The future of U.S. innovation is at stake—this should be a cause of concern for everyone,” said Rep. Robin Kelly, D-Ill. “This administration’s science, immigration and education policies are all working together to reduce the U.S. lead in AI technologies.”

Kelly and other lawmakers voiced their concerns about shrinking government R&D funds Wednesday in the second of three House Oversight IT subcommittee hearings on government’s role in developing and implementing artificial intelligence. In addition to supporting basic R&D, the government must also work to strengthen America’s STEM workforce and demystify the public perception of artificial intelligence, federal technology experts told the panel.

The Trump administration proposed slashing non-Defense R&D budgets by more than 19 percent in fiscal 2019. Though no panelists explicitly criticized the president’s budget, Doug Maughan, director of the cybersecurity division in the Homeland Security Department’s Science and Technology Directorate, stressed the importance of federal agencies doubling-down on basic R&D to stay “relevant” the competitive artificial intelligence space.

The National Science Foundation, which would lose roughly one-third of its funding under the White House proposal, was already unable to fund $174 million in promising artificial intelligence research last year due to budget constraints, said James Kurose, assistant director of the NSF for Computer and Information Science and Engineering.

Highlighting a number of technologies that got their start in government labs, such as the internet, GPS and drones, Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., lamented the unknown innovations the U.S. may cede to global powers like China without proper investments in R&D.

“The opportunity cost, I fear, is enormous,” he said.

Panelists also touched on a number of issues limiting the government’s implementation of artificial intelligence to streamline its own processes. One of the barriers to bringing AI tools into agencies is that federal leaders don’t quite understand how the new technology fits into the ecosystem, said John Everett, deputy director of the information innovation office at Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

“I think there’s a temptation to think of AI as magic and as being able to solve all our problems,” he said. Getting a full understanding of the root problem and working back to how artificial intelligence could help solve it is more effective than retrofitting the tech into the process, he said.