NSF Director Approaching Uncertain Tech Landscape with Confidence

Ustyna Shevchuk/Shutterstock.com

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.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.