America may be the current world leader in artificial intelligence, but its place is anything but assured. While nations around the world have launched programs to stimulate AI development, the Trump administration has practically ignored the topic. That changed today, when President Tump signed an executive order creating the “American AI Initiative” — a high-level strategy guiding AI development within the US.
The initiative will redirect federal funding and resources towards AI research, as well as call for the creation of US-led international standards in AI, and new research into the retraining of American workers. But the program includes no new funding for AI development, and is thin on details. The administration is not sharing any timelines for reaching its stated goals, and is instead promising a more detailed plan some time in the coming six months.
“Americans have profited tremendously from being the early developers and international leaders in AI,” reads the White House press release. “However, as the pace of AI innovation increases around the world, we cannot sit idly by and presume that our leadership is guaranteed. We must ensure that advances in AI remain fueled by American ingenuity, reflect American values, and are applied for the benefit of the American people.”
According to the Trump administration, the goals of the AI Initiative are split into five key areas:
- Research and development. Federal agencies will be asked to “prioritize AI investments” in their R&D budgets, and report how this money is spent to create a more comprehensive overview of government investment in artificial intelligence.
- Freeing resources. Federal data, algorithms, and processing power will be made available to researchers, providing a boost in areas like transportation and health care.
- Ethical standards. Government bodies like the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) will be asked to create standards that will guide the development of “reliable, robust, trustworthy, secure, portable, and interoperable AI systems.”
- Automation. Agencies will be asked to prepare workers for changes to the job market caused by new technology with the creation of fellowships and apprenticeships.
- International outreach. The administration wants to work with other countries on AI development, but do so in a way that retains American “values and interests.”
The initiative addresses a number of areas of key concern in AI development, but the lack of new funding will worry some. To date, 18 countries have launched national AI strategies, and half of these include new sources of funding. Figures range from roughly $20 million in Australia and Denmark to nearly $2 billion in South Korea.
Notably, the new program fails to address the issue of immigration. America’s lead in AI is partly due to its ability to attract foreign talent, but experts warn that researchers are increasingly put off by the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and its promises to restrict visa freedoms. According to statistics from the National Science Foundation, the number of overseas grad students in the US fell by 5.5 percent between 2016 and 2017.
Kate Crawford, co-director of the New York University research group AI Now, told Science Magazine that the executive order “correctly highlights AI as a major priority for US policymaking,” but lacks input from academics and civic leaders. This is especially worrying given the potential of AI technologies like facial recognition to impinge upon privacy and civil liberties. Recently, tech companies like Microsoft have called for federal regulation of facial recognition, but the AI Initiative includes no reference to these concerns.
Jason Furman, a Harvard professor who served as chairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers and helped draft the previous administration’s report on AI, told Technology Review that the plan was a step in the right direction, but would need concrete commitments — not just promises — in order to fulfill its stated goals.
“The Administration’s American AI Initiative includes all of the right elements, the critical test will be to see if they follow through in a vigorous manner,” said Furman. “The plan is aspirational with no details and is not self-executing.”
Update February 11th, 4:28PM ET: Updated to include information from the full text of the order and to confirm its signing. The headline has been updated to reflect this.