Trump's AI Initiative - Everything But Money

- Feb 25, 2019 -


The Trump administration finally said something about the most important technology in a generation. The Executive Order on Maintaining American Leadership in Artificial Intelligence issued on February 11, 2019 hopefully is just an early US shot in the AI war, an implementation war the US is arguably already losing, especially in areas like robotics.

Here are the five pillars of the initiative:

“1. Invest … in AI Research and Development (R&D)

“The initiative focuses on maintaining our Nation’s strong, long-term emphasis on high-reward, fundamental R&D in AI by directing Federal agencies to prioritize AI investments in their R&D missions.  

“2. Unleash … AI Resources

“The initiative directs agencies to make Federal data, models, and computing resources more available to America’s AI R&D experts, researchers, and industries to foster public trust and increase the value of these resources to AI R&D experts, while maintaining the safety, security, civil liberties, privacy, and confidentiality protections we all expect.  

“3. Set … AI Governance Standards

“As part of the American AI Initiative, Federal agencies will foster public trust in AI systems by establishing guidance for AI development and use across different types of technology and industrial sectors.  

“4. Build … the AI Workforce

“To prepare our workforce with the skills needed to adapt and thrive in this new age of AI, the American AI Initiative calls for agencies to prioritize fellowship and training programs … in computer science and other growing Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields.  

“5. International Engagement and Protecting Our AI Advantage 

“Federal agencies will also develop and implement an action plan to protect the advantage of the United States in AI and technology critical to United States national and economic security interests against strategic competitors and foreign adversaries.”

While these initiatives are welcomed, there’s no new money targeted directly at the above 5 initiatives or for AI R&D generally. Instead, the American AI Initiative directs agencies to prioritize, open and share investments within among existing research programs - everything but money.

As described by Will Knight inthe MIT Technology Review, “the initiative is designed to boost America’s AI industry by reallocating funding, creating new resources, and devising ways for the country to shape the technology even as it becomes increasingly global … however, while the goals are lofty, the details are vague. And it will not include a big lump sum of funding for AI research." As Knight points out, “other nations, including China, Canada, and France, have made bigger moves to back and benefit from the technology in recent years.” 

As reported by Cade Metz in the New York Times, General James Mattis, before he resigned his position as the US Secretary of Defense, “implored (Trump) to create a national strategy for artificial intelligence … Mattis argued that the United States was not keeping pace with the ambitious plans of China and other countries.”

Ben Brody reports in Bloomberg, that “Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, praised some aspects of the (new Executive) Order but criticized its tone. ‘The tone of this executive order reflects a laissez-faire approach to AI development that I worry will have the U.S. repeating the mistakes it has made in treating digital technologies as inherently positive forces, with insufficient consideration paid to their misapplication,’ he said.”

But where’s the funding? Why the vagueness about investments? Why is funding the responsibility of Congress? Why not White House-directed funding for “the American AI Initiative”? It would be hard to improve upon the observation made by William Carter from the Center for Strategic and International Studies as reported by Kaveh Waddell in Axios: "If they can find $5 billion for a border wall, they should be able to find a few billion for the foundation of our future economic growth." Waddell further reports that “so far, U.S. funding for AI has been anemic … an analysis from Bloomberg Government found that the Pentagon's R&D spending on AI has increased from $1.4 billion to about $1.9 billion between 2017 and 2019. DARPA, the Pentagon's research arm, has separately pledged $2 billion in AI funding over the next five years … it's hard to put a number on the entire federal government's AI spend, says Chris Cornillie, a Bloomberg Government analyst, because ‘most civilian agencies don't mention AI in their 2019 budget requests … (but) these numbers pale in comparison to estimates of Chinese spending on AI.  Exact numbers are hard to come by, but just two Chinese cities – Shanghai and Tiajin – have committed to spending about $15 billion each.’”

It’s also unclear how the new initiative builds significantly and meaningfully upon the Obama Administration’s National Artificial Intelligence Research and Development Strategic Plan, issued in October of 2016.

So now what? General Mattis is right: we need a national AI strategy (that answers the Chinese plan) and we need significant, long-term, dedicated, earmarked funding. While suggestions, recommendations and directives are good, they will not assure US dominance in AI. Leadership here should be immediate and aggressive. Moore’s Law makes it hard to catch-up.