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Biden sets stage for national AI strategy

Biden's focus on AI includes funding research and development, manufacturing chips in the U.S. and preparing a workforce to use AI tools.

President Joe Biden is planning to invest billions in technology research and development, but his approach to a national AI strategy still lacks a cohesive vision.

In the global race to AI supremacy, artificial intelligence gets little mention in Biden's proposed infrastructure plan and his fiscal year 2022 discretionary budget, despite the technology being a primary focus for countries like China.

Biden's $1.5 trillion discretionary budget and $2 trillion infrastructure allot billions to bring chip manufacturing back to the U.S. and fund research and development in emerging technologies, which broadly includes AI. To ensure the U.S. is "AI-ready," the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence (NSCAI) said the Biden administration will need to funnel billions not only into AI research and development specifically, but address the AI skills shortage and support AI innovation, according a recent report.

Biden has yet to release a formal national AI strategy, but experts believe it's coming -- and it won't be a moment too soon.

"Americans have not yet grappled with just how profoundly the artificial intelligence revolution will impact our economy, national security and welfare," according to the NSCAI's report. "Much remains to be learned about the power and limits of AI technologies. Nevertheless, big decisions need to be made now to accelerate AI innovation to benefit the United States and to defend against the malign uses of AI."

Components of AI

AI skills gap

One question Biden should address in his national AI strategy is how to shore up the AI skills gap, according to the NSCAI's report.

The NSCAI, established in 2018 by the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act, is a 15-person bipartisan group of which 12 were appointed by Congress. The commission was charged with considering methods to advance the growth and development of AI for U.S. national security and defense. The commission includes academics, national security professionals, business executives and technology leaders such as former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who serves as the commission's chair, Oracle CEO Safra Catz, Microsoft chief scientific officer Eric Horvitz, and former AWS CEO/incoming Amazon CEO Andy Jassy. 

In March, the NSCAI issued its final report on areas that need to be addressed to accelerate AI growth and development in the U.S., which includes shoring up the gap in AI talent shortage.

Beena Ammanath, executive director of the Deloitte AI Institute, said the AI skills shortage is an issue countries around the world are grappling with. For the U.S. to advance AI development, closing the skills gap needs to be prioritized as part of a national AI strategy, she said.

"AI skills are a scarcity no matter where," Ammanath said. "It's great to have a strategy and invest, but then how do you actually get the talent?"

The NSCAI recommended the Biden administration build new AI talent pipelines, including a U.S. Digital Service Academy to train existing and future employees in AI, as well as a civilian National Digital Reserve Corps -- similar to the National Guard -- to recruit talent such as college graduates and industry experts.

According to the report, the U.S. Digital Service Academy (USDSA) would be an accredited, degree-granting university modeled after the U.S. military service academies. Graduating students would be required to serve five years in the federal government.

"The human talent deficit is the government's most conspicuous AI deficit and the single greatest inhibitor to buying, building and fielding AI-enabled technologies for national security purposes," the report stated. "This is not a time to add a few new positions in national security departments and agencies for Silicon Valley technologists and call it a day. We need to build entirely new talent pipelines from scratch."

Stephen Ezell, vice president of global innovation policy at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, said workforce development will be a key factor to advancing not only AI research but development and use of commercial AI products.

"Over the past decade, both federal and workforce investment in worker training has declined by about a third," Ezell said. "It's important to develop these interesting technologies, but without the workforce to utilize them, it won't be the result we want."

U.S. investment in AI innovation

But closing the AI skills gap is just one facet of the approach the Biden administration needs to take to a national AI strategy, according to the NSCAI's report. It will also need to robustly fund AI research and development.

Biden's infrastructure plan and FY22 budget request -- neither of which have been approved by Congress -- channel billions into research for technologies including AI, an area the U.S. has traditionally invested in. Indeed, shortly before leaving office in January, the Trump administration released a strategy that focused on doubling AI research investment and established the National Artificial Intelligence Initiative Office to oversee its implementation. The office is responsible for ensuring the U.S. maintains a leadership position in AI research and development and preparing the workforce for AI systems integration across all sectors of the economy.

While mentioned, the details around AI investment in Biden's infrastructure plan and budget request are lacking. AI is included in the category of emerging technologies that also includes biotechnology, quantum information systems, high performance computing, robotics and cybersecurity.

"It's indicative that the administration is looking at a more fundamental level -- they're looking at basic research," said Andrew Bartels, principal analyst at Forrester Research. "Historically, the federal government's role in tech innovation has been to provide the funding for basic scientific research that cascades down into commercial products. Federal funding for the initial internet is a classic example of that kind of funding."

There is going to be a dramatic difference between the funding and activities in China around AI, much of which is focused on governmental control and surveillance, and the U.S.
Andrew BartelsPrincipal analyst, Forrester Research

The federal government's increase in AI research investment aligns with other countries like the U.K. and Germany, Deloitte's Ammanath said. But it's still behind the tens of billions of dollars China plans to invest in cutting-edge technology research and development, which includes a strong focus on AI. The NSCAI report said within the next decade, "China could surpass the United States as the world's AI superpower."

"The Chinese government has been very vocal about its ambition for China to become the world's leading AI innovator by 2030, just nine years away," Ammanath said.

But in China, leading on AI innovation also means leading on advances in facial recognition and other technologies that would be used for citizen surveillance, according to Bartels.

"There is going to be a dramatic difference between the funding and activities in China around AI, much of which is focused on governmental control and surveillance, and the U.S.," he said. "In the U.S., it's much more focused on commercial activities and that's been adequately funded by the private sector."

The NSCAI, however, questioned if U.S. investment in AI research and development goes far enough. In its report, the NSCAI expressed concern that only a handful of big companies and powerful states will have the resources to make significant AI breakthroughs. It encouraged the administration to form private-public partnerships to preserve the country's leadership in AI and support of its development and recommended that the administration allot $40 billion to expand and democratize AI research and development.

"We will also need to build secure digital infrastructure across the nation, shared cloud computing access, and smart cities to truly leverage AI for the benefit of all Americans," according to the report. "We envision hundreds of billions in federal spending in the coming years."

Bringing chip manufacturing back to the U.S.

Hardware is another significant area for advancing AI in the U.S.

Recent chip shortages due to increased demand during the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted how much the U.S. relies on places like Taiwan for critical chips. In his FY22 discretionary budget, Biden requested $442 million for the National Institute of Standards and Technology's (NIST) manufacturing programs. NIST is responsible for promoting U.S. innovation and industrial competitiveness.

The budget request also includes $150 million to fully fund two new Manufacturing Innovation Institutes -- one of which would be focused exclusively on designing and manufacturing chips. The U.S. has 16 Manufacturing Innovation Institutes that bring together manufacturers, academics and government to work on development projects and conduct advanced manufacturing skill training. The institutes are part of a national network called Manufacturing USA that aims to advance U.S. manufacturing through public-private collaboration.

Ray Bjorklund, president of BirchGrove Consulting LLC, said investing in U.S.-based chip manufacturing would reduce the risk of problems like the chip shortage the U.S. is currently seeing.

"Building out foundries that are capable of generating these chips so we don't have to rely on the risks of supply chains to Asia is where the investments in technology need to be made," he said.

Bartels echoed Bjorklund's sentiments and said focusing on the AI chip supply chain as well as U.S.-based chip manufacturing is a good move.

Although Biden's infrastructure plan, also called the American Jobs Plan, partly cites job growth as a reason for bringing manufacturing back stateside, Bartels said there's a larger focus at play: national security.

Many chips are currently manufactured in Taiwan, a neighbor to China. Relations between the two countries are already tense, and the U.S. is preparing for a worst-case scenario, where the critical chip supply chain is disrupted indefinitely.

"I think it's that larger strategic question that is driving this," Bartels said. "It's the strategic risk that so many of those chips that are used as the hardware for running these AI algorithms are coming from Taiwan."

Crafting a strong national AI strategy

Taking into account the NSCAI's guidance and what Biden has already started to plan for in his budget request and infrastructure plan, the stage is set for the release of a formal national AI strategy.

In his first months in office, Biden has yet to release an AI strategy. And Deloitte's Ammanath said that's not a bad thing. By taking his time, Biden can consider other countries' approaches to AI investment as well as how they've approached certain challenges, such as data privacy. The European Union, for example, recently proposed a first-ever legal framework that would guarantee citizens' privacy while "strengthening AI uptake, investment and innovation across the EU."

Ammanath said she expects to see a well-thought-out national AI strategy come from the administration down the road.

"I think it's better than a knee-jerk reaction, to put some thought behind it and think about it holistically and beyond investment -- how will that investment work out, what technology areas do we want to focus on, how do we get the talent we need, what are the skill gaps we have in the country, how do we upskill, how do we address some of the risk around policies, around ethics," she said. "Being very thoughtful sets the right approach given where we are with AI and can help us come out stronger." 

The NSCAI report said the Biden administration should consider moving fast and making investments today in AI for the future of the country. 

"The United States must act now to field AI systems and invest substantially more resources in AI innovation to protect its security, promote its prosperity and safeguard the future of democracy, " the report stated. 

Makenzie Holland is a news writer covering big tech and federal regulation. Prior to joining TechTarget, she was a general reporter for the Wilmington Star-News and a crime and education reporter at the Wabash Plain Dealer.

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