4 Experts Respond to Trump’s Executive Order on AI

The new “American AI Initiative” is heavy on bombast, light on specifics

3 min read

Illustration of an American flag with the letters AI on it in a circuit board style.
Illustration: iStockphoto/IEEE Spectrum

Yesterday, U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order establishing the American AI Initiative, with the aim of “accelerating our national leadership” in artificial intelligence. The announcement framed it as an effort to win an AI arms race of sorts:

Americans have profited tremendously from being the early developers and international leaders in AI. However, as the pace of AI innovation increases around the world, we cannot sit idly by and presume that our leadership is guaranteed.”

While extremely light on details, the announcement mentioned five major areas of action:

  1. Having federal agencies increase funding for AI R&D
  2. Making federal data and computing power more available for AI purposes
  3. Setting standards for safe and trustworthy AI
  4. Training an AI workforce
  5. Engaging with international allies—but protecting the tech from foreign adversaries

IEEE Spectrum asked four experts for their take on the announcement. Several saw it as a response to China’s AI policy, which calls for major investment in order to make China the world leader in AI by 2030. (The former head of Google China recently explained to IEEE Spectrumwhy China has the edge in AI.)

Darrell West, director of the Brookings Institution’s center for technological innovation and author of the recent book The Future of Work: Robots, AI, and Automation, says the executive order is an attempt at a national strategy for AI:

Trump is signing an executive order on AI because it is the transformative technology of our time and he needs a national strategy on how to retain U.S. preeminence in this area. Critics complain there is no national strategy, so he is using the executive order to explain how the government can help through R&D support, workforce development, and infrastructure enhancement. The order is a step in the right direction, but it is not clear whether there is new funding to support the initiative or how it will be implemented.

Professor Kate Crawford, co-director and cofounder of the AI Now Institute at New York University, says there’s not enough focus on the ethical and responsible deployment of AI:

The White House’s latest executive order echoes a growing global consensus that AI needs a strong policy focus. While sparse on details, the order gestures in some potentially positive directions, such as supporting our 2018 recommendation for sector-specific AI regulation and increasing interdisciplinary R&D funding. However, we are concerned with the focus on industry at the expense of a broader democratic process and an evidence-led approach to AI policy. Further, there is no new research funding allocated, nor any details on exactly how this plan will be executed, over what timeframe, who is leading it, or what success will look like.

Above all, this administration has a troubling track record of keeping its promises to uphold and protect privacy, civil rights, and consumer protection laws. I'm skeptical that the passing mention of these protections will result is any serious efforts to build in appropriate legal, ethical, and policy safeguards to ensure that AI systems are deployed responsibly.

Daniel Castro, director of the Center for Data Innovation, which recently released a report on the need for a national AI strategy [PDF], is the most positive of the bunch:

Ensuring American leadership in artificial intelligence is critical for U.S. competitiveness. Accelerating the development and adoption of AI holds the potential to increase productivity, grow the economy, and harness the many societal benefits the technology can bring. The administration’s initiative will prioritize AI research and training programs and boost auxiliary infrastructure such as data and other inputs.

Further, the initiative will help U.S. firms maintain their global advantage. While the U.S. currently leads in AI, China is pushing to dominate in AI. The administration’s initiative will help the United States keep pace with China’s progress.

Amy Webb, a “quantitative futurist” and author of a forthcoming book about AI called The Big Nine: How the Tech Titans & Their Thinking Machines Could Warp Humanity, doesn’t envy the legislators who will try to turn bullet points into action items:

The “American AI Initiative” at the moment is a collection of bullet points. It is vague at best and makes zero mention of detailed policy, a concrete funding plan, or a longer-term vision for America’s future. Congress will have six months to figure it out. There is no working group in place: no scientists, academics, researchers, ethicists, executives from the major tech giants. There is no dedicated federal funding for basic research in AI. There is no broader, long-term vision from the White House on AI, or how it fits into national strategy for the other transformational technologies like genomic editing.

Importantly, it makes no mention of how the United States will partner with and work alongside other countries to develop artificial intelligence beyond where we are today. There is no mention of multinational collaboration. I hope this White House administration is serious about artificial intelligence, however as it stands today, this executive order and the announcement from OSTP appear to be in reaction to what we’re seeing out of China rather than a serious domestic shift in our technology and science policy.

If and when the Trump administration releases more information, IEEE Spectrum will update you about what it is and what it means.

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