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Trump creates American AI Initiative to boost research, train displaced workers

The order is designed to protect American technology, national security, privacy and values when it comes to artificial intelligence.

President Trump attends the 2019 National Prayer Breakfast
President Donald Trump is pushing AI with an executive order Monday.
Chris Kleponis / Getty Images

President Donald Trump on Monday directed federal agencies to improve the nation's artificial intelligence abilities -- and help people whose jobs are displaced by the automation it enables.

"Maintaining American leadership in AI requires a concerted effort to promote advancements in technology and innovation, while protecting American technology, economic and national security, civil liberties, privacy, and American values and enhancing international and industry collaboration with foreign partners and allies," Trump said in an executive order signed Monday.

The order created the American AI Initiative, which will focus on five areas, according to a statement from the White House:

  • Research and development: Federal funding agencies will be asked to "prioritize AI investments" in their allocations.
  • Resources: AI researchers should have access to federal data, algorithms and computer processing.
  • Standards: Standards to push the development of "reliable, robust, trustworthy, secure, portable and interoperable AI systems" will be set out by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
  • Worker preparation: Agencies will train people to prepare for the changes resulting from AI, including automation, through apprenticeships, fellowships and training programs.
  • International links: The US will collaborate on AI with other nations, but ensure that the technology develops in a way that works with American "values and interests."
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The news comes less than a week after Trump's second State of the Union, which was light on technology aside from a passing reference to the administration's infrastructure plan.

It's good for the US government to focus on AI, said Daniel Castro, a vice president at the Center for Data Innovation, a technology-focused think tank that supports the initiative.

US companies have embraced AI but they're not moving fast enough, Castro said. "China has already surpassed the US in some metrics tied to AI R&D," he said. For example, it's been publishing more research papers than the US since 2014, he said. In addition, the US government can benefit from AI itself, offer data useful for training AI systems and help people whose jobs could be lost to AI automation, he said.

After years of false starts, artificial intelligence has surged in importance in technology circles. The main reason is maturity of a technology called neural networks modeled loosely on how human brains work. AI systems can be trained with real-world data to recognize patterns -- everything from detecting spam in your email inbox to your friends' faces in your photos.

At tech titans like Facebook and Google, AI touches just about everything the companies do, even advanced tasks like debugging software. But AI is spreading far beyond that to more mainstream companies, too. Fueling the trend is new AI-specific hardware that can accelerate both the highly taxing training process and the use of the resulting AI models in phones, laptops or online services. Some of the most obvious beneficiaries of AI technology are systems like Google Assistant, Apple Siri and Amazon Alexa that can understand our spoken commands and respond in human-sounding voices.

Job training is key, said Sameer Maskey, CEO of AI company Fusemachines. "Nationwide initiatives that train displaced workers in AI and other technology-first fields will not only reduce fears of AI taking over jobs, but will also prepare the workforce, ensuring that segments of our population have options when it comes to career choices in an AI-centric future," he said. 

US Sen. Mark Warner, vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said he supports some aspects of the executive order. But he too is concerned about the impact of AI on the job market. "The administration's executive order treats the impact of AI on the American workforce almost as an afterthought -- relegating consideration of upskilling and retraining to existing federal programs," Warner, a Democrat from Virginia, wrote in a statement.

And while acknowledging the resources "strategic competitors" are devoting to outpacing the US in AI, Warner cautioned that policy makers should move carefully. "If we've learned anything from the last two years, it's that U.S. policy should be much more thoughtful in the consideration of emerging technologies -- particularly in modeling their misuse."

Silicon Valley has been investing heavily in AI in recent years, but the path hasn't always been an easy one. In October, for instance, Google withdrew from competition for a $10 billion Pentagon cloud computing contract, saying it might conflict with its principles for ethical use of AI.

Trump this week is also reportedly expected to sign an executive order banning Chinese telecom equipment from US wireless networks by the end of February.

First published Feb. 11, 3:49 a.m. PT.
Update, 9:54 a.m. PT: Adds further context.
Update, 1:37 p.m. PT: Notes that Trump has signed the order and adds details and commentary about it.
Update, 4:30 p.m. PT: Adds statement from Sen. Mark Warner. 

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