Senator Charles Schumer (D–NY) unveiled his artificial intelligence plan last week at a meeting of the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence.

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United States should make a massive investment in AI, top Senate Democrat says

The top Democrat in the U.S. Senate wants the government to create a new agency that would invest an additional $100 billion over 5 years on basic research in artificial intelligence (AI). Senator Charles Schumer (D–NY) says the initiative would enable the United States to keep pace with China and Russia in a critical research arena and plug gaps in what U.S. companies are unwilling to finance.

The proposal, which Schumer outlined publicly for the first time last week in a speech to senior national security and research policymakers gathered in Washington, D.C., reflects the growing interest in AI and related fields, including a recent presidential executive order. And being the minority leader gives Schumer the chance to turn his ideas into concrete action.

Schumer wants to create a new national science tech fund that would pour $100 billion into “fundamental research related to AI and some other cutting-edge areas.” His list includes quantum computing, 5G networks, robotics, cybersecurity, and biotechnology. The money would fuel research at U.S. universities, companies, and other federal agencies, he explained, as well as paying for “testbed facilities” to carry out work needed to transform discoveries into potential commercial products.

The plan has been circulating in private for several months among tech industry executives and a handful of academic leaders, but it is far from complete. “This is just a discussion draft,” Schumer acknowledged.

Although planners have yet to settle on a proposed structure for the effort, Schumer suggested the new fund would be “a subsidiary” of the National Science Foundation (NSF) with links to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) within the Department of Defense (DOD). The fund would have its own board of directors.

Schumer delivered his remarks at a symposium sponsored by the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, a bipartisan body created last year by Congress. The choice of venue suggests the Senate minority leader hopes to move forward on legislation, despite a Congress currently both preoccupied and sharply divided over the pending impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump.

“This should not be a partisan issue. This is about the future of America,” Schumer asserted, saying the country’s security and economic prosperity depend on making such a major investment. And he asked the politically well-connected audience to help him sell the proposal.

“This idea has support from some people very close to the president and very close to [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell [R],” Schumer declared. “But thus far they have been unable to get their [principals’] full-throated support. Anyone here who has any relationship with those people or people near them should be pushing this.”

Jason Matheny, a member of the commission that hosted Schumer, doesn’t have that kind of political clout. But under former President Barack Obama, he led a DARPA-like research agency that serves the U.S. intelligence community, and he is now founding director of the Center for Security and Emerging Technology at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Although Matheny is withholding judgment on the specifics of Schumer’s plan until more details emerge, he thinks the idea has merit.

“Federal funding on R&D as a percentage of GDP [gross domestic product] is at a 60-year low and needs to be increased across all disciplines,” he notes. And although Schumer’s list of potential funding targets “sounds very much like the standard list of emerging technologies” that have drawn interest in Washington, D.C., Matheny says the lawmaker “may see AI as an enabling technology to accelerate work being done in all of these areas.”

Schumer’s comments suggest he also wants to plow money into elements—such as improving AI security and safety provisions, setting international standards, and creating metrics—that are essential for advancing the field but unlikely to benefit a particular company and thus, attract corporate support. Sources familiar with the proposal say the plan is fueled by Schumer’s long-standing concerns about China’s increased technological prowess, including its avowed goal of becoming a world leader in AI by 2025. The $100 billion figure, they speculate, is designed to make the point that business as usual isn’t enough to keep the United States ahead of the rest of the world in AI.

“The feeling is that we have to be willing to go very big,” says one veteran science lobbyist who requested anonymity. Schumer’s proposal also highlights his conviction that a new funding mechanism—the proposed tech fund—is needed to deal with the emerging challenges facing the country, adds a congressional staffer who follows the issue. And there is a precedent for that kind of thinking: In the late 1950s, U.S. officials created both DARPA and NASA in response to the Soviet Union launching its Sputnik satellite.

It’s not that federal agencies have been ignoring AI. Last month, the Department of Energy said it plans to ask Congress for $3 billion to $4 billion over the next decade for AI research that would enhance a similarly sized investment already underway in exascale supercomputing. NSF officials estimate the agency has been spending roughly that amount each year for the past decade on research to improve AI algorithms and software.

In February, Trump also issued an executive order telling NSF, DOD, and several other federal agencies to funnel more of their current investment in high-performance computing into “AI-related applications.” The order also requires federal agencies to develop an “action plan to protect the U.S. advantage in AI technology.” But it doesn’t call for any new spending.

Schumer’s office declined to provide additional information beyond a transcript of his remarks. But a spokesperson promised that “we’ll have additional information to provide in the coming weeks.”