U.S. Looks to Boost Non-Defense AI Research

More spending by Washington is needed, however, to keep pace with China, experts say.

MORE THAN A YEAR HAS passed since the U.S. government began taking the first steps into officially supporting artificial intelligence research. Now, AI has its own category in the president’s budget request for 2020, with about $1 billion sought in funding for non-defense purposes. This level of funding, experts say, is still not enough to maintain the United States’ competitive edge over China, which has been rapidly narrowing the gap in global AI research.

In May 2018, the U.S. federal government announced the creation of a committee of academics and private industry experts to examine the potential of artificial intelligence, followed by an executive order in February to double down on AI research. The president’s budget request, published earlier this month by the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC), constitutes the “first-ever reporting of agency-by-agency federal investments” in artificial intelligence research and development related to nondefense purposes.

According to the document, AI research and development for nondefense purposes should receive $973.5 million, about 12% of the amount requested by the Networking and Information Technology Research and Development, a group of American federal agencies that looks at research and development IT capabilities, and support science, engineering, and technology leadership. In other points made by NSTC report:

  • The federal government says it will coordinate long-term federal investments in AI research and development in algorithms, general AI systems that exhibit human intelligence, and enhanced performance.
  • The research will also look into promoting “safe and effective methods for human–AI collaboration” in order to efficiently develop advanced techniques for human augmentation and better AI-human interfaces.
  • Focus on AI design, ethics, legality and goals in society, security and trustworthiness, as well as a stronger public-private partnership in this field.

Sustained federal R&D investment in emerging technologies is at a critical point in advancing America’s leadership in global innovation, the document says, yet about $1 billion for a field in which the U.S. directly competes with China is not enough, say experts.

“We need a much bigger boost to keep pace with China, especially funding in support of basic research at U.S. universities and research institutes,” says Martijn Rasser, a senior fellow in the Technology and National Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. “Given the central role AI technologies will likely play in economic growth, geopolitics and global security, and the sharp growth in global spending on AI, this is a modest sum in relative terms.”

Aside from AI, the budget request for 2020 shows plans to focus on “R&D investment and coordination in pivotal IT-related technologies that support the leading industries of the future,” such as advanced manufacturing, quantum information science, and fifth-generation wireless communications or 5G.

“American success in these trailblazing fields will rely on both basic and applications-driven research; ongoing support for the R&D infrastructure; public–private R&D partnerships (PPPs) across the U.S. innovation ecosystem; and effective education of the American public and workers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields,” the report concludes.