Politicians worldwide are stealing one of the US government’s best ideas by drawing up ambitious plans to make the most of advances in artificial intelligence.
These AI manifestos, penned in Paris, Beijing, and elsewhere, follow the example of the Obama administration, which released a report on the technology toward the end of its tenure. This report did not include funding, but it made it clear that AI should be a key focus of government strategy.
The Trump administration has abandoned this vision and has no intention of devising its own AI plan, say those working there. They say there is no need for an AI moonshot, and that minimizing government interference is the best way to make sure the technology flourishes.
That looks like a huge mistake. If it essentially ignores such a technological transformation, the US might never make the most of an opportunity to reboot its economy and kick-start both wage growth and job creation. Failure to plan could also cause the birthplace of AI to lose ground to international rivals.
France is the latest country to bet heavily on AI. Last week, President Emmanuel Macron announced an AI plan that includes $1.6 billion in funding, new research centers, data-sharing initiatives, and ethical guidelines. Macron also echoed a view held by many economists and policy experts by suggesting that the technology could boost overall economic productivity and lead to wage growth and job creation.
The most notable national AI plan has come from China, which last year announced a plan to dominate the industry by 2030 (see “China’s AI awakening”). Details of that undertaking are murky, but many billions of dollars will be fed into the industry. And experts there are also debating how the technology might affect the economy and society.
Other countries have also recognized the technology’s potential. The UK government has published several major studies on AI, and last year it committed $663 million to tech funding, much of which has been earmarked for AI. Canada has created several new AI institutes and introduced incentives to attract companies working on the technology. Germany is said to be preparing its own AI strategy.
If the US were to draw up a new AI master plan, what should it aim to do?
Funding AI research is the biggest priority, says Jason Furman, one of Obama’s top economic advisors and author of the 2016 AI report. Furman says basic research requires government backing and that advances made privately won’t benefit the country as a whole.
Furman adds that it is especially important to promote AI because it could provide precisely the economic boost that leads to wage growth and new employment opportunities. “Economists have found, in general, that we may be spending about a quarter of what we should be, based on the returns,” he says.
Oren Etzioni, CEO of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, a nonprofit based in Seattle, points out that core AI breakthroughs have their origins in academia. “If you don’t fund the universities, you run the risk of starving the goose that lays the golden egg,” he says. “We are at a momentous point in history.”
Advisors to the White House reject the idea that the government isn’t spending enough. They point out that billions of dollars are funneled into projects related to AI through the Department of Defense, the National Science Foundation, and the Department of Energy. The omnibus spending bill approved by Congress will also provide new funds for academic research.