View from Washington: Trump seeks to reinvigorate US AI R&D

The President signed an Executive Order on Monday (11 February) that outlines solid foundations for a federal AI 'moonshot'.

Is there a facet to President Donald Trump’s character than means that whenever he does something smart, he also has to do something dumb to make sure the good stuff gets pushed out of the news cycle?

Because yesterday, before he landed in El Paso, Texas to spin his latest yarns about The Wall (and, inevitably, the size of the crowd at his rally), Trump signed an Executive Order on Artificial Intelligence. And it’s pretty sound.

Indeed, others could learn from how the order seeks to reinvigorate the US AI sector as its leadership is reeled in by China. In particular, it provides a template that Westminster could copy (Please note, Mrs May: the UK currently has a bigger AI sector than those of France and Germany combined, if you see where I’m coming from).

The order is unquestionably responsive. China is not mentioned by name, nor its more settled AI strategy, though there is a sideswipe at “adversarial nations”. But there can be no doubt that Trump’s administration now feels a pressing need to goose up its rate of technological innovation here, with an obvious comparison to 5G (*cough* Huawei).

With that in mind, it has been noted that (a) the Obama administration had an AI strategy that goes unmentioned and (b) there is no specific financial commitment.

On that second point, Trump’s spokespeople have briefed that any final sum is a matter for Congress (funny how he did find money around for The Wall though).

However even on the first (and given this President’s antipathy to all-things-Barack), there is this time a fair argument that things have changed significantly since Trump took office.

China’s AI investment has ramped – and continues to ramp – at remarkable speed, with VC spending there overtaking that in the US. Meanwhile, the Beijing government and its regional satellites are thought to have advanced more quickly than originally expected towards implementations in smart transportation and e-health, as well as the controversial ‘social credit’ scheme. In that light, Trump’s order looks particularly at what the US can and should be doing at the Federal government level.

So what the President has unveiled are the makings of a plan, one that the order says should crystallise during the next six months and seed the initial definition of an “Action Plan for Protection of the United States Advantage in AI Technologies” within 120 days.

The process will based on tightly scheduled audits of existing US resources (including access to high-performance computing), the perceived requirements of agencies ranging from the Department of Defence to Nasa and the National Science Foundation, and the current performance of STEM education towards stimulating AI expertise from school to research levels. There is similarly a recognition of the need to educate the public about AI, protect them from any threats and retrain the workforce.

Finally there is a clear demand for AI to be prioritised over other technologies in public R&D budgets.

Some international partners have already winced at a section that specifically says such priority should go to US citizens rather than US institutions. But can anyone claim to be surprised, given ‘America First’?

Ultimately, this is pragmatic, well-grounded stuff, and better than many had expected. Even if it can be argued that these kinds of audit have been done before, it bears repeating that the AI landscape has shifted rapidly.

The crunch will come when Trump starts to see the results. China’s investment runs into tens of billions of dollars. Not all of it is well directed. Not all of it is necessarily real money. But the President is still certain to be landed with a hefty bill some time this summer.

Assuming that Trump is willing to look at the price tag seriously, the money may flow. There are two other important factors here.

Trump’s advisors clearly consider AI to be as much a matter of national security as economic growth and social transformation, and an urgent one on all of those counts.

Then, the Democrats may have little choice but to go along with funding the plan, if the audit is performed with sufficient transparency and in detail. They have been banging the AI drum much harder for much longer than their Republican colleagues.

You can read the order in full here. As you’ll see, it is remarkably, well, sane. But, be warned: it is a hell of a lot longer than 63 words.

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