The Biden administration wants to invest in AI — but which kind?

The Biden administration wants to invest in AI — but which kind?
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To compete with China and shore up the American economy, the Biden administration is engaging in the long criticized industrial policy of choosing some industries to promote over others. Research and Development (R&D) tops the list of the chosen ones to the tune of $300 billion, and Artificial Intelligence (AI) is one of the favorite technologies on the R&D list, right next to other “Breakthrough Technologies” such as electric vehicle technology, lightweight materials and 5G.

Government reports and many journalists refer to AI as “a technology.” Actually, AI is not one technology but a whole toolbox of different technologies. To plan to invest more in AI is akin to calling for more investment in, say, renewables; both a good idea and a very incomplete thought. 

I am a student of public policy (including a year of hands-on experience in the White House), not of AI. That said, I note a striking difference between two AI agendas. One seeks to create an artificial brain that works just like the human one in order to understand the way human intelligence works and improve on it. Let’s call this AI project: the mind. 


The other approach in effect draws on a cooperation between humans and software, allowing humans to choose data sets, set goals and parameters (e.g. guard against bias) and let computers then learn from the data they were fed, improving choices such as facial and image recognition. Let’s call this AI: the partner

Several AI mavens I’ve asked dismiss the distinction as irrelevant and argue that it is now “all about machine learning,” i.e. AI: the partner. But John Markoff dedicated a whole book about the rivalries between the new camps in “Machines of Loving Grace: The Quest for Common Ground Between Humans and Robots.” A more recent book called “Genius Makers” by Cade Metz is full of reports about the same conflicts between advocates of AI: the mind, who see themselves as the only true AI champions, an AI: the partner, who hold that they are the ones delivering the goods. 

The Biden administration will have to decide how much to invest in AI: the mind, which so far has very little to show for itself but makes huge promises, versus the much more reliable work horse, AI: the partner. I would leave AI: the mind to be financed by foundations and dedicate the taxpayers’ dollars to the AI that does the work. 

Once upon a time, before the invention of software, each computer was hardwired for one mission. Much of AI is still mission specific. Famously, the very ingenious computer program that can play GO or Chess, at least until recently, could not play checkers, much less both GO and Chess. Increasingly there is AI software that can serve many missions, part of a rising field of transfer learning. Generative Pre-Trained Transformer 3, for instance, is a language model that can learn to reproduce human-like text and has many applications. These AIs surely deserve extra attention.

Most challenging will be dividing the AI dollars among various specific missions. Some AI researchers insist that their work should not be used for military or surveillance purposes. But AI is already making major contributions to these missions, and it is hard to see the Biden administration not investing heavily in them given the rise in domestic terrorism. Choices among the other missions are equally challenging, including whether more AI dollars should go to climate change or to fighting the pandemic or some other mission, until AI become less mission specific. Special attention will need to be dedicated to equality issues and avoiding biases.


Reports about progress by AI tend to fluctuate between those who fear AI taking over the world and those who scoff at is inability to recommend a book or movie to a person who truly wants to read or view them. A recent report of AI-generated pickup lines will reassure those alarmed while also giving hope to those who invest in AI. They include: 

“I’m not on your wears, but I want to see your start.” 

“I have exactly 4 stickers. I need you to be the 5th.” 

“You have a lovely face. Can I put it on an air freshener?”.

It seems creative writers need not fear AI: the mind or AI: the partner for now. And Biden may need to ensure that the taxpayers’ AI dollars are well spent.

Amitai Etzioni is a professor of international affairs at The George Washington University. His latest book is “Reclaiming Patriotism.” Visit his new platform for discussion, CivilDialogues.org.