Techbeat: The American AI Initiative

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: AI. That stands for artificial intelligence.  

It’s become the world’s leading-edge technology. Think voice assistants like Alexa and Siri. Think medical diagnostic tools, think self-driving vehicles. AI is finding its way into every facet of our lives.

EICHER: The United States currently leads the world in AI innovation. But China is poised to take the lead.

That country released a strategic plan two years ago to achieve global domination of the AI market by 2030. Even allies like France, Canada, and Britain have unveiled national AI strategies.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government is not standing still, either. President Trump signed an executive order earlier this month directing federal agencies to prioritize AI.

REICHARD: Here now to give us some more detail on this executive order, called the American AI Initiative, is WORLD Radio technology reporter Michael Cochrane.

Hello, Michael.


REICHARD: Michael, isn’t the private sector where most of action is on AI? Why does the administration think the government can help?

COCHRANE: That’s true. Many of the most innovative companies doing development work in AI are U.S. companies, and our system of higher education in the field is the envy of the world. But even with this advantage, many technologists believe the U.S. needs a national strategy to support AI research and development. China has already committed $150 billion over the next decade to develop AI under its new strategy.

REICHARD: So, is this potential threat from China one reason the administration thinks this is an economic and national security issue?

COCHRANE: That’s correct. The assumption undergirding the executive order is that AI will be a major driver of economic growth in the U.S. AI is also becoming increasingly important in our critical infrastructure and national defense systems. And since we’re currently the world leader in AI research and development, the administration believes maintaining that leadership will enhance our national and economic security. It also means we will be able to shape the way AI develops so it’s more in line with our national goals and priorities.

REICHARD: What exactly does the executive order do?

COCHRANE: It lays out what it calls five guiding principles: 1) The U.S. must drive technological breakthroughs in AI across government, industry and academia. 2) We must drive the development of technical standards for AI as well as reduce regulatory barriers to the testing and deployment of AI technologies. 3) We have to train more workers with the skills to develop and apply AI technologies. This would include establishing educational grants and fellowships. 4) The U.S. has to really sell the American people on the benefits and safety of AI, particularly with respect to privacy and the fear that AI will start taking over our jobs. And lastly, 5) The U.S. must promote open markets for our AI technology while at the same time protecting intellectual property and our technology advantage.

REICHARD: Those are general principles, but what kind of specific direction does the order give to government agencies?

COCHRANE: The initiative is being coordinated by the Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence, which is part of the National Science and Technology Council. All federal agencies will have to start implementing action plans and reporting back to the committee within 90- to 120-days on their progress. For example, within 90 days of budget appropriations for their respective agencies, the heads of those agencies will have to identify programs they are prioritizing for AI research and development. In other words, they’re being directed to channel part of their budgets into AI.

REICHARD: Does that mean that the administration will be asking Congress for additional money for AI?

COCHRANE: That’s actually one of the major criticisms being levelled at the executive order: It doesn’t allocate any additional funds to support these efforts. And even though AI experts in industry and academia applauded the administration’s initiative in advancing AI, many feel it’s meaningless without money and manpower. Other criticisms are that it’s light on specific policy proposals and doesn’t really give agencies any incentive to coordinate with other agencies in pursuit of the White House’s vision.

REICHARD: So, Michael, do you think this initiative has a chance of making a difference in our strategic posture regarding AI?

COCHRANE: I’m optimistic. The Department of Defense has already gotten out in front with the announcement this month of its own AI implementation plan entitled, “Harnessing AI to Advance Our Security and Prosperity.”

REICHARD: Prosperity? Why would the military include that in its AI plan?

COCHRANE: It’s another way of saying “economic security.” DOD’s plan specifically cites China’s and Russia’s investments in AI which it says threaten to erode our technological advantage and destabilize the international free market order. The DOD plan says the U.S. must adopt AI to maintain its strategic position, prevail on future battlefields, and safeguard this economic world order. The Pentagon has promised to spend $2 billion over the next five years on AI-based systems and software.

REICHARD: Michael Cochrane is science and technology correspondent for WORLD. Michael, as always, thanks for keeping us up to date.

COCHRANE: You’re very welcome, Mary.

(Photo/Creative Commons)

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