U.S. Needs a National Strategy for Artificial Intelligence, Lawmakers and Experts Say

The government is well-positioned to flag specific research areas that would have the biggest impact on national interests.

Policymakers and technology experts said without a broad national strategy for driving artificial intelligence forward, the U.S. risks letting global competitors direct the growth of the budding industry.

The Trump administration has taken a largely hands-off approach in regards to AI, arguing it’s still too early for the government to get involved in the technology and any attempts at oversight could stifle its growth. But in a panel hosted Wednesday by Politico, experts were quick to point out the difference between burdening industry with regulations and addressing the issues at hand today.

“Their notion that [artificial intelligence] isn’t already upon us, or the view that it’s not already affecting our lives in very profound ways … is in fact short-sighted. The toothpaste is already out of the tube,” said Rep. John Delaney, D-Md., who founded the Congressional AI Caucus.

In its budget for fiscal 2019, the White House designated artificial intelligence as a federal research and development priority and in May assembled a committee of AI experts to coordinate those governmentwide efforts. But while ChinaFranceCanadathe European Union and others have outlined broad plans for moving artificial intelligence R&D forward, the U.S. lacks such a unified strategy.

But just as the launch of Sputnik spurred the country to create a long-term plan for the space program, the threats competitors like China pose to America’s leadership in AI should push the government and private sector to adopt a set of common goals for future development, said Delaney.

And those goals could potentially cover a wide array of areas.

The government is well-positioned to flag specific research areas that would have the biggest impact on national interests and drive partnerships among agencies, industry and academia to address those topics, said Walter Copan, the Commerce Department undersecretary for Standards and Technology and director of the National Institute for Standards and Technology. Additionally, he noted a national strategy could set ethical standards for artificial intelligence and define areas where it should or should not be used.

“This is going to be something that impacts the entire world, and if we show leadership on this and start driving international norms, we can make sure this tool does more good than bad,” said Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas.

And that might not be the case if a more authoritarian country, like China, wins the global AI race.

Experts widely consider China to be the biggest threat to American dominance in artificial intelligence, and in recent years its government has made tremendous investments in R&D and built a collaborative innovation ecosystem that’s begun to mirror that of the U.S. Given the authoritarian government’s ability to dictate every aspect of the R&D enterprise, make even more critical for the U.S. to point its long-term efforts in the right direction, lest it lose even more ground.

“Best case scenario, we’re tied with China,” Hurd said on the panel. “We’re still the benchmark because the greatest innovators, the smartest people are here in the United States of America, but … [China’s] ability to move quickly because they can force action is one of the reasons they could potentially get a leg up on us.”