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Trump to launch artificial intelligence initiative, but many details lacking

Artificial intelligence (AI) has become a defining issue of our time, affecting national security, economic development, human rights, and social media—for better and worse. And today, President Donald Trump will sign an executive order launching the American AI Initiative, directing federal agencies to focus on the technology.

The administration has yet to provide many details, however, saying only that it will be assigning federal agencies specific timelines for “deliverables” and expects to release more information over the next 6 months.

The U.S. initiative, which follows on the heels of at least 18 other countries that have announced national AI strategies, will have five “key pillars,” a senior administration official told reporters yesterday during a telephone briefing. They are:

1) Research and development. The administration will ask agencies to “prioritize AI investments” in their spending, but did not detail how much funding the White House will request to support the initiative. (Congress ultimately determines spending levels.) The initiative also calls for better reporting of AI R&D spending by agencies, in order to create an overview of how much is spent across the government.

2) Infrastructure. Agencies are expected to help researchers access federal data, algorithms, and computer processing.

3) Governance. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and other groups will together draft general guidelines for governing AI to ensure its safe and ethical use. The official couldn’t say which specific issues the effort would address, but noted that it will involve experts from the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Defense, and other agencies. The senior administration official noted that one concern is protecting data privacy.

4) Workforce. The White House’s AI advisory committee and its council on job training will look for ways to continue workers’ educations. In addition, agencies will be asked to create fellowships and training programs in computer science.

5) International engagement. The administration hopes to perform a delicate balancing act: collaborating on AI with other countries, while not compromising U.S. interests or ceding any technological edge. The official deflected questions about how engagement efforts might address China’s challenges to U.S. interests, and did not say whether the initiative would address immigration and visas for scientists, engineers, and students.

The initiative follows several steps the Trump administration has already taken on AI. In May 2018, it held a summit on the role of AI in industry. And in September 2018, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency announced that it had committed $2 billion to AI research funding. (The total included some projects already underway.) That month, the White House also called for public input on updating an existing National AI R&D Strategic Plan.

Early reaction is mixed. “The White House’s latest executive order correctly highlights AI as a major priority for U.S. policymaking,” says Kate Crawford, a co-director of AI Now, a research institute at New York University in New York City. But she’s concerned about its focus on industry and apparent lack of input from academia and civic leaders. She says passing mentions of privacy and civil liberties don’t dispel worries about the Trump administration’s “troubling track record” on these issues.