May 8, 2018 at 6:00 AM
The White House on Thursday plans to convene executives from Amazon, Facebook, Google, Intel and 34 other major U.S. companies as it seeks to supercharge the deployment of powerful robots, algorithms and the broader field of artificial intelligence.
The Trump administration intends to ask academics, government officials and AI developers about ways to adapt regulations to advance AI in such fields as agriculture, health care and transportation, according to a draft schedule of the event. And they’re set to discuss the U.S. government’s power to fund cutting-edge research into such technologies as machine learning.
For the White House, the challenge is to strike a balance between the benefits of computers that can spot disease or drive cars and the reality that jobs – or lives – are at stake in the age of AI.
“Whether you’re a farmer in Iowa, an energy producer in Texas, a drug manufacturer in Boston, you are going to be using these techniques to drive your business going forward,” Michael Kratsios, deputy chief technology officer at the White House, said in a recent interview.
Among those expected to be in the room for that private gathering Thursday will be representatives from tech giants like Microsoft, Nvidia and Oracle, as well as other businesses like Ford, Land O’Lakes, MasterCard, Pfizer and United Airlines, according to the White House. Slated to represent Facebook is Jerome Pesenti, its vice president of AI, the company confirmed. Amazon plans to send Rohit Prasad, the head scientist for its voice-assistant Alexa. Intel chief executive Brian Krzanich is also expected to attend.
By the Trump administration’s own estimate, the U.S. government spent more than $2 billion in unclassified programs alone during the 2017 fiscal year to research and develop AI technology, according to data furnished this week by the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. That doesn’t include spending at the Pentagon and key intelligence agencies far removed from public view, or additional boosts that the White House has sought for 2019.
Still, many experts said they would ask the Trump administration this week to dedicate new federal dollars to fuel the field and help them compete with firms in other countries, particularly China, now seeking to incubate their own advancements in AI. A key focus is jobs – training workers for new tech-heavy roles, as well as helping those who may eventually be displaced because of automation.
“We do believe in the short and medium term there will be job losses,” said Paul Daugherty, the chief technology and innovation officer of management-consulting firm Accenture, who is scheduled to attend the Thursday gathering. “There will be new jobs available, but the real challenge: if we can match people up and train them in an appropriate way.”
AI encompasses powerful technologies. It guides the self-driving cars offered by Uber and Google-owned Waymo. It’s the software behind smartphone voice assistants like Apple’s Siri and the facial-recognition tools on Facebook. And its ability to interpret large amounts of data is also being tapped in new, unconventional ways, including efforts to reshape workforce recruiting, farming and food production.
About a year ago, the Trump administration publicly had sounded a different note on AI. Steven Mnuchin, who had just been tapped as treasury secretary, told reporters that artificial intelligence was “not even on my radar screen,” stressing that the real use and implication of those tools were “50 to 100 more years” on the horizon. The remark drew swift condemnation throughout the tech industry just months after the outgoing Obama administration had published two papers on AI policy.
Tech companies had “a lot of bad blood” with the Trump administration in the early months, said Pedro Domingos, an AI researcher and University of Washington professor who wrote "The Master Algorithm." President Trump’s focus on job loss in non-tech industries — and his attacks on companies like Amazon — didn’t help, Domingos said. (Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Over the past year, however, the science and tech aides in the White House’s ranks have sought to chart their own course on AI. They last hosted leading executives from Apple, Amazon and Google at the White House in June, when Trump committed generally to removing regulatory barriers facing emerging technology.
At the White House, Trump in September signed a policy directive carving out $200 million for coding education grants that could help prepare students for jobs in science, tech and engineering fields. Federal agencies like the Department of Transportation, meanwhile, have sought in recent rules to help deploy more self-driving cars on U.S. roads. Later this week, the agency is also expected to grant permission to as many as 10 cities and states to test more autonomous drones, potentially including those from Amazon and Google that would deliver packages. The move comes a week after another agency, the Food and Drug Administration, approved an AI device to scan diabetic patients for a related eye disease — the first such approval of its kind.
“I think it’s been a slow ramp [up], but they’re now focused on the right things,” said Dean Garfield, the president of the Information Technology Industry Council, which represents companies like Apple, Facebook and Google. He said the White House’s upcoming meeting “is an opportunity to accelerate toward success and leave that slow start in the rearview mirror.”
Beyond public research funding, tech firms believe Washington could play a critical role in helping educate American workers on the ways AI will reshape jobs and create new ones — including in factories, where AI and robotics have helped drive a resurgence of domestic manufacturing.
“There are a lot of people who say that AI is going to be about job destruction. It is not. It is going to be about job movement,” said ITI’s Garfield. “So I think the White House is actually in a unique place to mobilize a movement that’s necessary to prepare the American workforce for what will be here in the next 20 years, and that needs to be comprehensive and strategic.”
For many in the industry, though, AI sits at the center of a high-stakes technological duel between the United States and China. In July, leaders in Beijing announced a plan to incubate a local AI industry valued at about $150 billion by 2030, relying in no small part on government investment. To that end, recent reports have suggested the White House is exploring policy options to restrict U.S. firms from partnering with China on research in artificial intelligence.
Some companies are emboldened by the assertive steps the Trump administration has taken toward China in criticizing intellectual-property theft and the restrictive rules tech companies must follow to operate in the country. "They think, 'Hey, we are competing with these Chinese companies, and they're getting an unfair kind of help from the government that we're not getting,’ ” Domingos said.
A spokesman for the administration’s Office of Science and Technology Policy declined to comment on the reports. In December, though, the president’s official National Security Strategy warned that "risks to U.S. national security will grow as competitors integrate information derived from personal and commercial sources with intelligence collection and data analytic capabilities based on artificial intelligence and machine learning."
For now, a source familiar with the White House’s event said the administration is considering a different set of proposals, including efforts to make more data available for AI research. Many companies long have asked the government to make more of its information available.
“Our free-market approach to scientific discovery harnesses the combined strengths of government, industry and academia, resulting in the most successful innovation machine the world has ever known,” Kratsios said.