James Riley
February 21, 2019

Executive Order: Trump on AI

Research

Executive Order: Trump on AI

Donald Trump: An Executive Order on AI that should influence thinking elsewhere

I totally get that Donald Trump is a doofus and that every single thing he ever says or does is either stupid or evil, and undoubtedly wrong. So how come he can centrally prioritise a national R&D effort around artificial intelligence as a strategic imperative, while in Australia we are struggling to even talk about it?

President Trump last week signed an Executive Order on Maintaining American Leadership in Artificial Intelligence. Seemed pretty straight-forward, really. The document is a top-down statement of direction and intent.

“Continued American leadership in AI is of paramount importance to maintaining the economic and national security of the United States and to shaping the global evolution of AI in a manner consistent with our Nation’s values, policies, and priorities.” Yep, seems pretty straight-forward.

This was the President directing that the heads of agencies – which collectively control tens of billions of dollars’ worth of public sector R&D spending – now consider AI as a research and development priority. And that they should budget an amount to AI R&D that is appropriate to this new prioritisation.

In Australia, we are still waiting on the completion of two reports being put together by the Industry department in conjunction with the CSIRO’s Data61 unit: An AI Technology Roadmap and an AI Ethical Framework.

These two reports – a roadmap and a framework – were a part of a $30 million allocation for AI initiatives (that’s millions, not billions) outlined last May. Some would say that this is a shockingly modest public investment in AI.

But the deeper concern is that Australia is still talking around the edges on this critical new general technology. And that the conversations about artificial intelligence seem a long way from Australia’s political leadership.

There is no way a directive – or even a “headland speech” – is going to come out of the Prime Minister’s office that highlights the fundamental need for Australia to build AI capacity and capability.

And yet there’s that big orange baby over there in his big white house issuing what looks like pretty sensible marching orders to his government leaders.

It does make you wonder what Australia’s leadership is thinking when they see the kind of big public bets that China, the US, Russia and others are putting on government-led AI R&D investments. These are multi-year bets measured in the tens of billions of dollars.

Are they thinking “Wow, ‘the Donald’ and ‘the Jinping’ sure are chugging on that AI Kool-Aid”? Or are they thinking “Gee those dudes really are going all-in on AI, I wonder if there’s anything in that? Maybe we should take a look”?

Whatever the Australian Government leaders are thinking, the point is that they are not saying anything. And they are not doing. They are not currently leading the nation on AI.

Yes it is certainly true that Donald Trump’s AI Executive Order attracted significant criticism – most notably that the President is extremely late to the AI party, and that the Executive Order brought no new money with it.

But surely having a plan and publishing it is better than having no plan at all? 
So allow me to make a contribution. Here are Five Principles that the Australian Government can use to guide its thinking on building AI R&D capacity and capability in government and across the Australian economy.

This might help get the ball rolling (with my thanks to the President):

  1. Australia must drive technological breakthroughs in AI across the federal government, industry, and academia in order to promote scientific discovery, economic competitiveness, and national security.
  2. Australia must drive development of appropriate technical standards and reduce barriers to the safe testing and deployment of AI technologies in order to enable the creation of new AI-related industries and the adoption of AI by today’s industries.
  3. Australia must train current and future generations of Australian workers with the skills to develop and apply AI technologies to prepare them for today’s economy and jobs of the future.
  4. Australia must foster public trust and confidence in AI technologies and protect civil liberties, privacy, and Australian values in their application in order to fully realize the potential of AI technologies for the American people.
  5. Australia must promote an international environment that supports Australian AI research and innovation and opens markets for Australian AI industries, while protecting our technological advantage in AI and protecting our critical AI technologies from acquisition by strategic competitors and adversarial nations.

Obviously I have just swapped out the words ‘United States’ and ‘Americans’ and inserted ‘Australia’ and ‘Australians’. If these are the principles on which policy is developed, then it is a good start.

Australia does not have the luxury of announcing a policy framework in a new technology area like artificial intelligence without committing significant new money. We do not have anything like the scale in existing capability and resources to redirect to AI research.

Nor does Australia have the specific science research capability already within its departmental structures like the US (the Department of Energy alone, which traces a science heritage to the Manhattan project and now underpins much research into renewables) has a science budget of more than $5 billion. In fact, the Energy Department has a funding arm like the famed DARPA – the Advanced Research Projects Agency –Energy (ARPA-E).

The US department of commerce has within it responsibility for the weather forecasting and oceanic research among many other things, and all of the billions in science research that comes with these endeavors. And then there is Defence and Homeland Security, which also come with giant-sized pure research capability and funding dollars.

Australia not so much.

But Australian governments, the Commonwealth in particular, have a fundamental and central role to play in AI capability uplift, if not actual technology breakthroughs

And virtually every activity conducted by government at all levels in Australia will be significantly – if not dramatically – impacted by emerging AI technologies.

It is definitely time for a broader conversation about AI in this country, and it is past time that it be given some top down shape.

Australia is a small but still significant player in global scientific networks. We can’t be in everything. We have to pick our marks.

So we are all looking forward to seeing the federal government’s Artificial Intelligence Technology Roadmap. And we are looking forward to seeing the significant funding that will come behind it.

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