Trump signs executive order fostering artificial intelligence R&D in government

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President Donald Trump signed an executive order Monday expanding his administration’s efforts to foster the research and development of artificial intelligence tools in government.

The executive order doesn’t offer additional funding for agencies, but directs agency heads to instead set aside R&D funding in their fiscal 2020 budget requests “that is appropriate” for the White House’s elevation of AI as a national priority.

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The executive order, and the American AI Initiative it launches, lays out six strategic goals for agencies:

  • Promote “sustained investment” in AI R&D with industry, academic and international partners.
  • Improve access to “high-quality and fully traceable federal data.”
  • Reduce the barriers to greater AI adoption.
  • Ensure cybersecurity standards to “minimize vulnerability to attacks from malicious actors.”
  • Train “the next generation” of American AI researchers.
  • Develop a national action plan to “protect the advantage” of the United States in AI.

The White House launched an artificial intelligence task force last May focused on updating a national research and development strategy the Obama administration developed in 2016.

Lynne Parker, the assistant director for artificial intelligence at the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), said last December the task force would release an updated version of that R&D strategic plan by “early spring.”

“It’s a broader effort than what they announced before,” Darrell West, the Brookings Institution’s vice president and director of governance studies, said in an interview Monday, noting that the executive order calls for greater access to federal data and expanded workforce training opportunities.

What remains unclear, however, is whether Congress will appropriate the funds necessary to ensure agencies make AI R&D a top priority.

“Sometimes these initiatives get announced with great fanfare, but then don’t really have any impact,” West said. “Oftentimes, there’s no additional money, there’s no way to coordinate with other agencies. I think everybody’s going to be watching to see if there’s any teeth in this, and how they follow up with the implementation.”

Daniel Castro, the director of the Center for Data Innovation, said his group welcomed the executive order, but urged the White House to “do more than reprogram existing funds for AI research, skill development, and infrastructure development.”

“Among these additional steps, it should ask Congress for significant funding increases to expand these research efforts,” Castro wrote in an email.

Rep. Pete Olson (R-Texas), the co-chair of the House AI Caucus, said Monday’s executive order recognizes that artificial intelligence will play an important role in the future of technology.

” America’s national security and our global competitiveness depend on our ability to remain at the forefront of future technology advancements,” Olson said in an email. “Investing heavily into AI is an investment in the future of our country.”

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) the vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, in an email Monday, said the EO offers “little concrete guidance” on how the U.S. should respond to malicious uses of AI.

The executive order, he added, also treats retraining and reskilling the workforce “almost as an after-thought,” falling back on existing agency programs.

Cameron Chehreh, Dell EMC’s chief technology officer, said the executive order aims to build a “symbiotic relationship” with the administration’s upcoming federal data strategy.

Meanwhile, the President’s Management Agenda has already tasked agencies with looking for opportunities to better leverage and commercialize their vast inventories of publicly available data.

“When we look at that volume and that complete corpus of information, it’s almost humanly untenable to be able to do analytics against,” Chehreh said. “When you look at creating these new algorithms with AI, and allowing AI to run against these data sets, we’re now able to create new linkages that we’ve never seen before.”

Office of Management and Budget acting director Russ Vought, within 90 days of the executive order, will invite the public through a Federal Register notice, to “identify additional requests for access or quality improvements for federal data and models that would improve AI R&D and testing.”

National Science Foundation director and AI task force co-chair France Córdova, who attended the White House signing ceremony, said the AI Initiative will “be critically important” to keeping the United States at the forefront of technology and innovation.

“Many of the transformative uses of AI that we are witnessing today are founded in federal government investments in fundamental AI research that reach back over decades,” Córdova said in a statement. “Building the foundations of tomorrow’s AI innovations will require new interdisciplinary collaborations, resources and strategic vision — principles that NSF has championed in its support of fundamental AI research.”

Last month, Donna Roy, the executive director of the Department of Homeland Security’s Information Sharing and Services Office, said U.S. adversaries have developed a machine learning and AI strategy that are “much more aggressive than maybe even ours.”

The military services, through a series of pilot programs, have taken cautious steps to see whether machine learning can reduce unscheduled maintenance for aircraft and combat vehicles.

Last year, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) completed its end of an autonomous ship project called Sea Hunter and handed it over to the Office of Naval Research.

However, civilian agencies, including the IRS and General Services Administration, have experimented much more with robotic process automation to help reduce employees’ time spent on rote tasks.

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