How To Maintain Your Lead And Influence AI

The Center for Data Innovation’s panel the United States’ AI leads and weaknesses, factors that could impact your business and development resources.

On September 10th, the Center for Data Innovation hosted the panel How the United States Can Maintain Its Lead in the Global AI Race at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.

The morning event included representatives from government, academia, and industry, and covered the global race for innovation to see which nations and policies allowed for a strategic advantage in artificial intelligence. The elephant in the room: how are we truly stacking up to China and what are our plans to (continually) beat them at the AI game moving forward?

The panelists agreed that a strong AI sector in the United States was of utmost importance. The differing policies and approaches between the US, EU, and China specifically showed contrasting results both in the near and long term. While it was generally agreed that the US has a slight lead, it did not go unnoticed that China has a booming AI sector — and it’s not letting up anytime soon. This strategic planning of Chinese investment in AI is expected to set their citizens and their government up for long term successes in multiple arenas. Simply put, China realizes AI is a big deal and is doing something about it. Now.

As for how Europe fits into this discussion? Panelists were hesitant to advise the implementation of GDPR-like policies due to concerns that such policies would impede US private and public sector AI development. The panel joked that while Europe often takes a “there isn’t a problem we can’t regulate” approach to policy, other nations aren’t nearly as risk-averse. Naturally, risk often benefits those in the technology space, and AI is no different. Thus, if and when the US were to adopt a data policy, keeping AI innovation in mind is crucial. To the GDPR fangirls in the dev community: as Former Treasury Secretary Paulson said, “There is a very real danger that (regulation) will become a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Don’t let data privacy laws be the sheep that prevents the growth of the US AI sector.

Each country’s approach to data and AI policy is a microcosm of their individual political perspectives on internet or technology governance. As exemplified by GDPR, the European Union uses law to exert its ethical standards on the rest of the world. In that vein, the panel recommended the United States establish clear principles and long-term goals of its own. Then the country could advocate for aligned data flow policies, and by proxy, boons to the AI sector.

Open data flows, a skilled talent pool, and aggressive funding initiatives were all cited as priorities for ensuring American dominance in AI. The panelists also agreed that an interdisciplinary policy path, in contrast to a siloed approach, would lead to fast and exponential growth across all industries. Some believed that joint efforts between nations, in areas such as medicine and education-related AI, would benefit all without harming a specific nation’s AI preeminence.

The importance of open data to AI was greatly stressed. The higher quality and diversity of open data sets creates a stronger AI end product. Thus, a continued focus on policies promoting open data allows the US to remain more competitive in this arena than other regions, and allow for the United States to be the driving force of innovation globally. Judging by the panel’s consensus on the importance of data to AI, I can’t imagine anyone who would be pro-AI would want stringent data laws in the US a lá Europe. You can see by my European counterparts's coverage of AI that they have already begun regulating at a level that I don’t think many in America are ready for — and may never be, given the detrimental impact to industry excess regulation would have in both the short and long term. (Would you want to be the 2020 candidate running on a promise to ‘Make America Tech Illiterate’ again?)

With regards to the talent pool itself, panelist Torres stated that while the university level was an extremely important factor to being competitive in the space, America should focus on all levels of professionals. He stressed the importance of computer science teachers and the necessary fundamental education that fosters the desire to pursue careers in AI. Further, a strong baseline education in computer science would benefit Americans of all ability levels and provide access to new careers — careers currently available only to the (albeit growing) digitized workforce. Other panelists echoed these sentiments, calling for additional educational resources which would offer returns on their economic investment. Panelists cited the focus on technology and software education that competitors such as China have already implemented. This was stated to be an area where China leads the US. In the long term, a lack of educational resources and a baseline technology education will widen the gap between the US and Chinese AI sectors. In order for the US to maintain a lead in the global AI race it cannot fall behind in computer science education.

There was a consensus amongst the panelists that leading in AI innovation can boost competitiveness, increase productivity, protect national security, and solve societal challenges. In a broad sense, an abundance of funding in all aspects is needed to grow and maintain US AI prominence. While the United States is a leader in public and private research and development spending, concerns were raised by panel members that it did not match the pace of industry growth. If AI funding expansions was not prioritized then the panel expected the US to quickly fall behind competitors.

The statements went so far as to say that economic dominance in the AI space was a zero-sum game that the United States would not want to lose. Areas such as climate change and humanitarian relief efforts were cited as opportunities for collaborative AI projects between nations. Collaboration in the space is seen as positive and propelling AI forward. The national security and economic implementations of AI however still create a need for a national competitive edge.

President Trump stated earlier this year that “Continued American leadership in Artificial Intelligence is of paramount importance to maintaining the economic and national security of the United States.” The administration has noted it is prioritizing AI initiatives. Those in the tech policy community appear to be hesitantly optimistic about the Trump administration’s efforts in this regard. The federal government recently announced plans to spend almost $1 billion in additional nondefense artificial intelligence research and development in fiscal 2020, according to a supplemental report to the president's budget request. While the additional funding is more than welcome, many experts in the space however warn that this additional funding is still not enough given the breadth of AI, the investment by competitors abroad, and the need for the United States to remain extremely competitive in this sector.

The event was moderated by Daniel Castro, Director at the Center for Data Innovation and included commentary from panelists:

  • Michael Kratsios, U.S. Chief Technology Officer,

  • Fiona Alexander, Distinguished Policy Strategist, School of International Service at American University,

  • Jackie Medecki, Director and Managing Attorney of US AI and Healthcare Policy at Intel Corporation,

  • Anthony Robbins, Vice President, North America Public Sector at Nvidia,

  • Frank Torres, Director of Consumer Affairs at Microsoft Corporation, and

  • Michael McLaughlin, Research Analyst at the Center for Data Innovation.

The Developers Alliance will continue to monitor AI policy initiatives and legislation in both the United States and the European Union as they unfold.