NSF Director Approaching Uncertain Tech Landscape with Confidence

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France Córdova sat down with Nextgov to discuss the national AI strategy, the federal research ecosystem and the “very exciting” future of quantum computing.

France Córdova thinks we’re on the cusp of some major technological breakthroughs, and as a nation, we need to embrace the change.

“Ultimately the country that succeeds the best is going to be the one that is [most] open to discovering, to moving forward,” she said in a conversation with Nextgov. “You need to approach the future with a certain confidence.”

As director of the National Science Foundation, Córdova oversees an extensive portfolio of cutting-edge research in artificial intelligence, quantum computing, astrophysics and countless other topics. And in the years ahead, she and her organization will be on the frontlines of the governmentwide effort to advance “industries of the future.”

Chief among those industries is artificial intelligence, a technology the White House sees as increasingly critical to the country’s national and economic security. In the national AI strategy released last month, the Trump administration called on agencies to double down on efforts to advance AI and help the U.S. workforce navigate an increasingly tech-heavy job market.

While many experts criticized the AI initiative for its lack of specific policy proposals and additional funding, Córdova said overall she’s pleased with how the strategy turned out. Having grown out of years of collaboration between federal policy and technology experts, the plan touches on the full range of issues AI will pose in the coming years, and there’s the sense that agencies across government are all on board with the effort to address them, she said.

Córdova also isn’t bothered by the strategy’s open-ended approach to issues like bias, safety and privacy. Today, she sees the tech as too young and the applications too “amorphous” for the government to try steering the field in one direction over another. Guiding principles on transparency and ethics are certainly imperative, she said, but it might be too soon for specific policies.

“[AI] is going to take off in so many different directions,” Córdova said. “Look at autonomous cars—that has a different kind of policy framework … then some other completely different [application]. As you see applications developing that you'll appreciate better where you'll need to do regulation.”

As for the funding, she said NSF will continue to do everything it can with the money at its disposal. The foundation’s budget has increased steadily in recent years, with Congress allocating some $8.1 billion in 2019, and includes specific set-asides for AI research.

“As a person who believes the universe has infinite possibilities, we could use an infinite amount of money to fund all those possibilities,” she joked, but “I'm not a person that complains about not having enough. I've always believed that you do the very best thing with what you have.”

During a 2017 congressional hearing, she said the foundation every year is forced to deny up to $4 billion of “excellent” research proposals due to funding constraints. Still, Córdova said she can’t remember a time when so many investors from industry and across government have coalesced behind a single research topic.

“We have a lot of interagency communication about ... making use of partnerships, because other industries, just about all of them, want to be a part of this,” she said.

Though the White House slashed overall federal research funding in its 2020 budget proposal, it specifically requested some $850 million for AI research at NSF and other civilian agencies. Through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon has also promised to devote some $400 million per year to AI research for the next five years.

While DARPA’s often bizarre AI projects have drawn lots of attention over the past year, Córdova sees NSF playing a fundamentally different, yet equally important role in the federal AI research.

As a Defense Department component, DARPA focuses its efforts on specific tools with national security applications, NSF funded research tends to be more open-ended with more direct impact on the lives of everyday people, Córdova said. Today, for instance, the foundation is exploring potential uses of AI in classrooms and assisted-living facilities, two areas the military would likely have little interest in pursuing, she said.

Córdova also noted the NSF funding process tends to be more democratic than DARPA’s—while the Pentagon tends to consistently tap a small pool of researchers for its endeavors, the foundation is open to “proposals from anywhere.” Today, NSF funds a wide array of AI research, but Córdova said workforce development and data interoperability are two areas of particular interest for the organization in the coming years.

Artificial intelligence aside, the foundation is also investing heavily in quantum information sciences, which Córdova said could be on the verge of a significant breakthrough in the coming years. NSF played a critical role in the “first quantum revolution,” which helped create lasers and computer chips, and today she said the field “is ready for its second revolution” in the information sciences.

“If I've had any surprises in the time I've been [NSF director], it's how advanced that particular branch of the field is,” she said. “The research is at hand and just needs a little more investment. I think that something very exciting will happen” in the next three to five years.