President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Monday calling on government agencies to prioritize artificial intelligence efforts as worries grow that China may be outpacing the United States in implementing the technology.
The so-called American AI Initiative encourages more AI-centric education, more access to the data and cloud computing tools needed to build AI systems and more government collaboration with private-sector and academic entities. But it notably lacks a detailed plan for funding any of those ambitions.
While short on the nuts and bolts of its various policy goals, the order could eventually open up more opportunities for businesses to work with the federal government on AI-related projects and provide much-needed workforce training through a focus on educational grants and federal agency fellowships.
The order comes as the Chinese government has been spending big on AI education, research and development, putting it on track to surpass the United States in some respects within the next five years, according to former Google executive Kai-Fu Lee, author of AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley and the New World Order. Chinese president Xi Jinping has specifically declared a plan for the country to overtake the U.S. technologically by 2030.
But Lee points to Corporate America as a bright spot in the country’s slipping global position on AI. U.S. businesses are still well ahead of their Chinese counterparts thanks to a better data infrastructure and the ability to attract top talent from world-class academic institutions, Lee told Adweek last fall.
However, those companies aren’t necessarily beholden to the United States, and tech giants like Google, Microsoft and Amazon have begun appealing to collaborate with the Chinese government as well.
Perhaps the most crucial problem the executive order could tackle would be closing the skills gap in AI workforce talent with more education. Through sheer population numbers and a greater focus on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) disciplines, China’s legions of rank-and-file engineers are one of its biggest advantages at the moment, according to Lee.
Meanwhile, a recent industry field survey from O’Reilly identified the talent shortage as the primary hurdle in advancing AI adoption. Various industry leaders have called on a greater emphasis on technical education as a response.
Trump’s executive order directs a select committee on AI within the National Science and Technology Council to work with the National Council for the American Worker to determine which programs and specific skills to prioritize in expanding educational grants. Programs eligible for grant money include high school, undergraduate and graduate courses as well as alternative education and vocational training institutions.
“Heads of implementing agencies that also provide educational grants shall, to the extent consistent with applicable law, consider AI as a priority area within existing Federal fellowship and service programs,” the order reads.