America’s AI Initiative: A Plan to Plan?

Posted on 15th February 2019


Interested in national plans for using AI? Our AI strategies series analysed France, Canada, and the UAE’s attempts to shape AI development in their borders and inform it everywhere else.

This week, President Trump formally launched the “American AI Initiative” by executive order. US policy-makers and industry have grown increasingly concerned with China, France, and the UAE’s national strategies spurring development across a range of sectors and services and informing the global AI debate. Monday’s signing marked the administration’s first foray into keeping the US a global leader in this technology.

Those hoping for an expansive and thorough plan, however, will be disappointed (though not surprised) — not least due to the lack of any new, direct funding.  Nevertheless, any first step is better than no step. The administration is finally seeing the potential of next generation technologies and at the very least, laying the groundwork for a more comprehensive AI strategy.

So, what can we expect from the administration’s strategy?

It requires federal agencies to prioritise AI when allocating funding for R&D, but does not provide new R&D funding. Rather, it reallocates already appropriated funding. With this approach, the US risks falling further behind as France, China, the UAE, and fifteen other countries have launched domestic AI strategies in recent years, many with dedicated streams of funding – including nearly USD 2 billion in South Korea.

Additionally, while the order calls for international cooperation and new NIST standards to steer the development of “reliable, robust, trustworthy, secure, portable, and interoperable AI systems,” the strategy does not establish tighter mechanisms on coordinating standards, interoperability, and data governance issues with like-minded allies — especially in light of forthcoming data governance and data flow discussions at the G20. On the contrary,  the initiative primarily establishes a framework by which the US would shape AI domestically.

Still, the latest initiative demonstrates a shift in the US approach, previously based on the assumption that most AI innovation will continue to arise from private companies. This has been the US strategy for decades and has indeed long served innovation well.

But a hands-off approach could lead to misalignments with US strategic priorities and perhaps competitive disadvantages compared to China’s statist approach. This new plan goes some way in casting AI more in geopolitical, even military-centric terms. However, with China’s massive investments in the technology, coupled with Beijing’s goal of making China the world’s primary innovation centre by 2030, the US will need to commit to its promises or risk falling behind. Like any initiative – it’s all in the execution.

Author: Alexis Serfaty, Director of Global Public Policy, Access Partnership

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