White House Unveils a National Artificial Intelligence Initiative

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The executive order calls for agencies to focus on AI, but details and funds are sparse.

President Trump on Monday signed an executive order directing federal agencies to double down on efforts to advance artificial intelligence.

The American AI Initiative, however, includes few specific policy proposals and no additional funding to support the initiative.

“Continued American leadership in artificial intelligence is of paramount importance to maintaining the economic and national security of the United States and to shaping the global evolution of AI in a manner consistent with our nation’s values, policies and priorities,” President Trump said in the order.

Under the initiative, agencies are required to prioritize investments in AI research and give researchers better access to data and software services for developing AI tools. They must also invest in STEM education and create training programs to help public- and private-sector employees navigate job market changes caused by the technology.

The initiative also charges government tech leaders with exploring regulatory frameworks that “advance American innovation while respecting civil liberties, privacy and American values,” and drafting standards for creating “reliable, robust and trustworthy” AI systems, according to the order.

White House officials must create an action plan for protecting the U.S. against the economic and national security threats posed by China and other nations’ investment in AI.

Agencies and federal leaders will submit plans for meeting these requirements to the White House at different intervals during the next six months. The order doesn’t allocate any additional funds to support these efforts, so agencies must pull the money from other parts of their budgets.

The measure comes after years of technology experts urging the White House to lay out a strategy for advancing the country’s AI ecosystem. China, which is widely considered to be the biggest threat to U.S. technological leadership, released a plan for dominating the global AI market in July 2017, and allies like France, Canada and the U.K. have also unveiled their own national AI strategies.

Industry and academic experts applauded the administration’s commitment to advancing the tech, but it doesn’t mean anything without money and manpower, they said.

William Carter, deputy director of the Technology Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Nextgov he was pleased to see the initiative take a “comprehensive” approach to AI development. Still, he said, he’s skeptical whether top executive branch leaders will throw their weight behind the effort.

“You can have this lofty document ... but there’s a lot of legwork in making sure that actually translates into action on the ground,” Carter said. “In this White House, I don’t think [the Office of Science and Technology Policy] has the clout and the presidential support needed to push the agencies in a serious way.”

And the fact that the initiative doesn’t include any additional funding “worries me a lot,” he said. Research funding and job retraining programs aren’t cheap, and many government leaders will likely resist attempts to reallocate funds from existing programs, he said.

Today, the vast majority of AI research is conducted by the Pentagon’s research office, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. In September, DARPA committed some $2 billion to explore state-of-the-art AI applications over the next five years.

Beyond general funding concerns, implementing the strategy will require the White House to work closely with Congress, industry and the international community, which could prove especially difficult in the current political environment, according to Carter.

“This is going to require a huge amount of input and collaboration …. [and] that’s going to be a struggle for this administration,” he said. “The other thing is there’s a huge international piece. Given the way this administration has positioned itself with respect to our key allies and partners, we’ll have to see if they can really get them to engage in a substantive way on this issue.”

The order’s lack of specific policy proposals also concerns Josh Elliot, the director of Booz Allen Hamilton’s artificial intelligence office. A full-fledged national strategy should include targeted funding and a defined blueprint for maintaining a leg up in the global AI market, he told Nextgov, but in this measure, the details are scant.

“I think it’s great the administration is finally putting out at least the beginnings of a strategy, [but] I don’t necessarily think this is the strategy that’s necessarily going to do it,” he said. “I think it’s going to continue to push the ball in the right direction,” but federal tech leaders will need to focus on execution for the initiative to have any meaningful impact.