How Congress can help ensure US leadership in artificial intelligence

How Congress can help ensure US leadership in artificial intelligence
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The age of artificial intelligence is upon us. AI is no longer a future technology but a present one. The AI revolution is highly global, with nations such as China playing a leading role in AI innovation. The 116th Congress has a valuable part in ensuring continued American competitiveness in AI innovation, especially human capital development and smart, sensible regulation.

The U.S. lacks a comprehensive national AI strategy. By contrast, over a dozen other nations and international organizations have published AI strategies. For example, the European Union has released its AI strategy with a focus on investing in its innovation ecosystem, developing talent, building a common data space in compliance with data principles, and developing ethics to create trust. According to the EU Commission, “the ambition is then to bring Europe’s ethical approach to the global stage.”

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China, meanwhile, has emerged as a peer competitor to the United States in AI and has announced its intention to lead the world in AI by 2030, which poses a myriad of economic, human rights and security concerns. The United States lags on creating a national plan and will need to build a comprehensive AI strategy to maintain technological leadership and responsibly harness the opportunities AI presents.

Congress can contribute to U.S. AI leadership by building the human capital necessary to develop AI and by exploring options for smart, sensible regulation to make sure AI systems are safe and beneficial to the American public.

In 2018, the U.S. government made progress in AI, but much remains to be done. The Department of Defense (DOD) has made positive strides through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) significant AI research and development (R&D) investments and by establishing the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC), which will coordinate and advance defense-related AI activities. The White House hosted an AI summit last year and repeatedly has emphasized AI as an R&D priority.

Congress, too, took steps to bolster national AI efforts by provisioning for a National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence in the fiscal year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act. These efforts are valuable, but fall short of the comprehensive national approach that other nations are bringing to ensure national competitiveness in AI. Congress can address several key areas:

  • Increasing funding for AI initiatives;
  • Improving STEM education and high-skilled immigration policies to ensure the United States can grow and attract top talent; and
  • Passing smart, sensible regulation to ensure AI innovation is not hindered by a public backlash against harmful uses.

Congress played a similar role passing key legislation in other technology areas, such as last year’s bipartisan National Quantum Initiative Act.

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The private and public sectors need to collaborate to maintain U.S. leadership in AI. While the government cannot, and should not, supplant the private sector for all R&D efforts, the government can play an essential part in funding areas where there are not sufficient private-sector incentives — such as basic research and AI safety, a critical, underfunded area. Congress should increase government AI R&D spending and fully fund critical initiatives such as the DOD’s Joint AI Center.  

Congress also can take steps to ensure the United States builds and maintains a talent base sufficient for AI leadership. While the White House STEM education plan is a good first step, the United States will need to draw upon internal and external sources of talent to satisfy the demand for high-tech workers. Ninety percent of employer requests for H-1B visa applications are for jobs that require high-level STEM knowledge, a product of the acute shortfall in the U.S. labor market.

Enabling high-skilled immigration comes with an a bonus for the American economy — according to a joint report by the American Enterprise Institute and the Partnership For A New American Economy, “An additional 100 foreign-born workers in STEM fields with advanced degrees from U.S. universities is associated with an additional 262 jobs among US natives.” Immigrants found one-quarter of startups in the United States. Congress should work in a bipartisan manner to reform high-tech immigration practices and expand the domestic talent base by promoting STEM education.

As AI technology is introduced into the U.S. economy, from social media bots to self-driving cars, the United States will need a sensible approach to regulating applications of AI technology to avoid undue harm and public resistance to adoption. Already, aspects of a backlash have been seen in the case of attacks on self-driving cars. Eighty-two percent of Americans believe AI needs careful management to address a wide variety of concerns.

Smart, sensible regulation of AI applications is needed to ensure that uses are socially beneficial. In the absence of federal government leadership to date, some states and private actors are stepping up. California recently passed a “Bot Disclosure” law requiring that bots disclose that they are not human, an important and necessary step given recent advances in AI-generated text and synthetic voice capabilities. Microsoft has called for regulation of facial recognition technology.

By engaging on these and other issues, such as algorithmic accountability for social media, Congress can play a critical role in ensuring that AI applications are socially beneficial and the U.S. public supports further development.

Congress can seize these opportunities to light a safe path forward for AI. As Kelvin Droegemeier, the new director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, has written, investment in basic research “is not a partisan issue; it is the embodiment of a quintessentially American desire, rooted deeply in our history as explorers and trailblazers — to explore the unknown, to ask the difficult questions, to protect our citizens, and to create a better future for our children and ourselves.”

By funding AI research, expanding the talent base, and creating conditions for safe development, Congress can ensure the United States does not explore in the dark.

Paul Scharre is a senior fellow and director of the Technology and National Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Ainikki Riikonen, the Joseph S. Nye Jr. Research Intern with the Technology and National Security Program at CNAS, contributed to this article.