Unpacking Trump's 'American AI Initiative'

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President Trump today will reportedly sign an executive order establishing the "American AI Initiative" to guide AI development in the United States.

The Trump administration released details about the initiative ahead of the announcement breaking down five "key pillars" of the overarching US AI strategy, but details are scant on funding, timelines, and the larger geopolitical forces at play behind America's long-awaited move to establish official policy overseeing and governing AI development.

The Obama administration released a report in 2016 that broke down factors such as automation and economic transformation, cybersecurity, research, and foreign policy, but stopped short of providing anything beyond a potential regulatory framework. The American AI Initiative is currently broken down into five core areas:

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  • Funding: The government will direct federal agencies to "prioritize investments" in AI research and development, but there are no specifics yet regarding how much funding will be requested and who gets it.
  • Government Resources: The initiative will give AI researchers access to federal data and resources such as machine learning algorithms and models to boost development and help researchers train advanced deep learning models and neural networks. The initiative commits to providing computing power in the form of cloud-compute resources to AI-related applications and research projects. No details are provided regarding where those apps will be hosted, i.e. on the government's own servers or through some sort of public-private partnership allocating resources from cloud platform vendors such as Amazon or Microsoft.
  • Automation: Massive changes to the workforce are an inevitability as AI replaces more human jobs and creates new ones. The initiative will direct federal agencies to prepare federal workers for changes in the job market and spearhead retraining programs such as apprenticeships, fellowships, and skill-based education. No specifics are given regarding specific industries or job types, or which federal bodies will oversee retraining efforts.
  • International Engagement: The initiative calls for the US to work with other nations on collaborative AI development, but do so in a way that protects American "values and interests." This point is all about reading between the lines, where you'll find a big neon sign flashing the word CHINA.
  • Standardization: Creating standards is an oft-discussed topic in AI, but internet standards bodies like the ISO and IEEE have only begun developing technical standards in the past few years. Otherwise, companies have largely been left to their own devices to determine what is considered an ethical use of AI. This initiative positions the US to begin dictating standardization policies around developing "reliable, robust, trustworthy, secure, portable, and interoperable AI systems," through agencies including the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

We got some more details on the administration's thinking in a Wired op-ed written by Michael Kratsios, the White House Deputy Assistant to the President for Technology Policy. Kratsios talked about an AI future of autonomous cars, industrial robots, and disease diagnosis, framed in terms of American industrial-type dominance over its development.

"As a result of our long-term emphasis on fundamental research and development, America has been the leader in AI from its inception," wrote Kratsios. "The American AI Initiative will build on this success by leveraging our R&D ecosystem of industry, academia, and government and prioritizing federal investments of cutting-edge ideas that can directly benefit the American people. An integral part of the initiative will include federal agencies developing AI R&D budgets to support their core missions."

Kratsios said federal agencies will work with industry and educational institutions through the National Council for the American Worker and the Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence.

One factor not mentioned is how Trump's anti-immigrant policies are affecting research talent available in key tech fields such as AI, where professionals are flocking elsewhere in the midst of ongoing uncertainty with visa programs such as H1B. In 2017, 97 tech companies filed an order opposing Trump's immigration ban.

Then there's China. Kratsios talked about "winning the race for AI," but none of the US government's official messaging on the American AI Initiative have explicity named the world's other AI powerhouse, which launched a broad AI funding and development plan in 2017. Eighteen countries including Canda, Denmark, France, Mexico, Singapore, and South Korea currently have fully funded AI strategies in place, but none have the public-private infrastructure and hardware/software pipeline that exists in China.

Chinese software giants Alibaba, Baidu, and Tencent have a combined market capitalization of more than a trillion dollars, and are only investing more heavily in AI. The big American tech corporations (Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, IBM, and Microsoft) stop the market capitalization charts and remain market leaders in AI investing billions of dollars each year in R&D, but China's state-run goverment allows for an unparalleled level of supply chain control. To reduce reliance on semiconductor importing and feed the demand created by its AI software companies, China is investing $47 billion in semiconductor production to meet the country's future goals.

Amidst the ongoing trade war between the US and China, AI is one of the key tech frontiers—alongside 5G telecomunications infrastructure and quantum computing—on which the battles are already underway. The US has already taken definitive action against Chinese telco manufacturer Huawei, charging the company with dozens of counts of financial fraud and intellectual property theft. And Huawei execs including CFO Meng Wanzhou have been detained.

The administration is also reportedly gearing up to institute a ban on Huawei technology in US wireless networks. The company continues to launch its own 5G tech, which the government is determined to keep far away from the 5G network deployments beginning to roll out across the US this year.

How the AI race plays out between China and the US has implications not in the global economic power dynamic, but for issues including cybersecurity, military-grade applications of AI, and ethical implications of tech like facial recognition and surveillance systems on civil liberties and privacy.

This article originally appeared on PCMag.com.