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Tech leaders seek more focus on AI at White House summit

UPDATED: Thu., May 10, 2018, 7:25 p.m.

In this April 2, 2017 photo, the White House is lit with blue lights in honor of World Autism Awareness Day in Washington. (Alex Brandon / Associated Press)
In this April 2, 2017 photo, the White House is lit with blue lights in honor of World Autism Awareness Day in Washington. (Alex Brandon / Associated Press)

Top U.S. tech executives and researchers want the Trump administration to invest more in artificial intelligence and craft policies they hope will strengthen the economy without displacing jobs.

The administration said Thursday it is doing just that. President Donald Trump’s technology adviser Michael Kratsios pledged to a gathering of corporate leaders that “the Trump administration will ensure our great nation remains the global leader in AI.”

Tech giants such as Google, Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft as well as major retailers, banks, drugmakers, carmakers and food companies participated Thursday in the White House’s first summit on artificial intelligence.

Some tech leaders have pushed the administration to focus more on AI and related issues in science and technology. Academic leaders are also pitching for investment in basic research.

There is little doubt that U.S. tech companies and universities are already at the forefront in developing self-driving cars, robotics, smarter health diagnostics and other advances that rely on increasingly intelligent machines. But Trump’s lack of public emphasis on both the economic promise and potential dangers of automation has contrasted with other world leaders who have made a vocal push to get their countries ahead.

“It’s been a huge missed opportunity up until this point,” said Robert Seamans, a White House economist during the Obama administration who now teaches at the NYU Stern School of Business.

Naveen Rao, who leads the AI product unit at chipmaker Intel, said the United States enjoys “a nice lead that happened organically” and with help from prior investments going back decades.

But, he said, “other countries are organized, and organizing right now, around AI and how it’s going to change the future of work and the economy.”

China’s government announced last summer a goal of becoming a global leader in artificial intelligence in just over a decade by developing skills, research and educational resources to achieve major breakthroughs. A report last month from the U.S. Congressional Research Service described China as a “leading competitor” in using AI to develop military applications, including autonomous vehicles and computer systems that can make faster and better-informed decisions.

The European Union’s executive branch said last month it wants the bloc’s public and private sectors to invest at least $24 billion in AI through 2020 in an attempt to remain globally competitive. The leaders of France and the U.K. have talked about making AI investments while also outlining concerns about developing the new technology with ethical guidelines.

John Holdren, who was the top presidential science adviser during the Obama administration, warned that the Trump administration’s late entry into outlining its approach to AI reflects broader concerns about its commitment to technological advancement. Holdren noted that his former job leading the nearly 40-year-old Office of Science and Technology Policy remains unfilled.

Trump hasn’t nominated a replacement, but Kratsios, a deputy assistant to the president for technology policy, hosted Thursday’s meeting and detailed the administration’s strategy.

Kratsios said a new committee is being formed that will coordinate AI investments across federal agencies, including research related to autonomous systems, biometric identification, computer vision and robotics.

“The potential for AI remains breathtaking, but we cannot be passive,” said Kratsios, according to his prepared remarks. The event was closed to the press.

While Seamans said the U.S. doesn’t need to take a centralized approach, it will be helpful to have administration officials discuss impacts from the new technology, especially for consumers and workers whose jobs are becoming obsolete or who will require new skills.

He said it’s also important to make it easier for startups to participate so that the technology – and the reams of online data it learns from – isn’t tightly controlled by a small set of large companies.

Dean Garfield, who heads the Information Technology Industry Council trade group, said the White House’s attention to AI is “better late than never.”

Garfield said that as new technology displaces some job roles, “the government is well-situated to make sure that people are also deployed in the competencies and in the places those jobs will be.”

“AI will be as significant to society as the race to get to other planets and get to space was in the ’50s and ’60s,” Garfield said.

Garfield and other attendees said they were optimistic about the administration’s approach, including efforts to smooth regulations that could foster the adoption of self-driving vehicles and drones.

Ian Buck, who leads the data center business for chipmaker Nvidia, said his company also supports the administration’s plans to make more government data sets available to researchers.


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