Now is the time for an economic stimulus in artificial intelligence — or the US could fall behind

Fabrizio Bensch/ Reuters
  • Congress has been working to provide financial lifelines to Americans and businesses amid the economic contraction spurred by the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Including funding for research into artificial intelligence will not only aid the US’s economic recovery but also better position it for the future, writes Tony Samp, an adjunct senior fellow at the Centre for a New American Security and a government affairs policy adviser at the law firm DLA Piper.
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The COVID-19 virus has inflicted significant pain on the US economy as airlines have cancelled thousands of flights, restaurants and retailers have shut down, and sporting events and concerts have gone silent.

In response, congressional lawmakers joined together and threw an immediate lifeline of $US2 trillion to small businesses, hospitals, and individuals to tackle the crisis. While Americans remain holed up in their homes, the US government and Congress are considering additional stimulus efforts to get the economy back on its feet.

Additional assistance for families, businesses, and healthcare workers should and will, of course, be front and centre, but one area of new stimulus should not be overlooked – artificial intelligence.

Why artificial intelligence? AI technology has already proven its ability to assist in the COVID-19 response by utilising supercomputers to accelerate the research of treatments to COVID-19, as well as enabling grocery stores to better predict food and supply chain shortages. AI has remarkably helped ensure some semblance of normalcy in a drastic situation.

AI will also play a critical role in reopening the economy by speeding up testing diagnostics and restarting supply lines. But the gradual return to society will require some social distancing to remain in place, and people may not want to leave their homes and engage in public activities to the same degree as before.

With this in mind, and since consumer spending accounts for roughly 70% of US GDP, strong government action will be needed to re-energize the economy through targeted investments in key industries of the future like AI. Digital engineers in academia and industry are eager to tackle the predominant questions about AI and can create economic growth opportunities in the process if they have focused resources.

Prior to COVID-19 there was already bipartisan support and recognition of the need for a significant AI investment. The National Security Artificial Intelligence Commission (NSCAI) found that US federal research and development funding as a percentage of GDP has shockingly returned to 1957 pre-Sputnik levels and that “federal R&D funding for AI has not kept pace with the revolutionary potential it holds or with aggressive investments by competitors.” The NSCAI called for an immediate doubling of AI investment.

Artificial intelligence robotAxel Heimken/dpa via Getty ImagesPaulina Kappen, a student at the Kiel University of Applied Sciences, demonstrates the capabilities of a robot used to care for dementia patients, in Hamburg, Germany, November 21, 2019.

There are also geopolitical and strategic reasons. Defence Secretary Mark Esper decried Chinese ambitions of being the world leader in AI by 2030 stating, “China believes it can leapfrog our current technology and go straight to the next generation.”

US Chief Technology Officer Michael Kratsios called the Chinese government an authoritarian “Great Firewall” that uses technology to suppress its population and “degrade individual dignity through a dystopian Social Credit Score” like something out of the Netflix series “Black Mirror.” And to make matters worse, Russian President Vladimir Putin ominously declared that “whoever becomes the leader in this [AI] sphere will become the ruler of the world.”

So what should Congress do about it? It’s not like legislative proposals don’t already exist today to respond to the alarming decline in US R&D spending and China’s AI ambitions. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has called for a massive $US100 billion investment over five years in key industries of the future, like AI, and suggested the creation of a DARPA-like entity to prioritise and accelerate these critical technology areas similar to what DARPA did in 1958 after Sputnik.

Last month, the highest-ranking Democrat and Republican on the House Science Committee, Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson and Ranking Member Frank Lucas, introduced H.R. 6216, “The National Artificial Intelligence Initiative Act,” which would provide $US6.5 billion for AI R&D over the next five years. H.R. 6216 closely mirrors a bipartisan bill introduced last year by the Senate AI Caucus co-chairs, Sens. Martin Heinrich and Rob Portman.

Both bills follow the same legislative formula for making significant investments in AI through the National Science Foundation, Department of Energy, and the National Institute for Standards and Technology. Most importantly, the proposals seek to reverse the negative trend of AI talent development in the US by investing in academia through AI fellowships, traineeships, and curriculum development.

However, these legislative proposals are merely that, proposals. Putting actual dollars toward a national R&D strategy is easier said than done. The old adage of “never let a crisis go to waste” is relevant here. In the absence of bold, congressional leadership and action on AI funding, China and Russia will develop AI that undermines American values and leapfrogs American technological superiority.

Amid election-year politics and heightened partisanship following impeachment proceedings, the COVID-19 crisis has brought together lawmakers in uncommon ways. The $US2 trillion CARES Act passed the Senate by a vote of 96-0 while the House of Representatives passed it by a voice vote. As additional efforts are considered to reopen and reignite the US economy in the months ahead, it is not only infrastructure projects that will get our economy up and running.

For economic and national security imperatives, now is the time for congressional leaders to consider major AI investment as a stimulus tool that will help bolster our economy and put our country in a position of strength for years to come.

Tony Samp is an adjunct senior fellow at the Centre for a New American Security and a government affairs policy adviser at DLA Piper Global Law Firm. He was formerly senior policy adviser to Sen. Martin Heinrich and the founding director of the Senate Artificial Intelligence Caucus.

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