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Tech leaders to seek more focus on AI at White House summit

May 10, 2018 - 11:21 am

By MATT O'BRIEN, AP Technology Writer

Top U.S. tech executives and researchers want the Trump administration to invest more in artificial intelligence and craft policies they hope will strengthen the economy without displacing jobs.

Tech giants such as Google, Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft as well as retailers, banks, drugmakers, carmakers and food companies are participating at a White House event Thursday on artificial intelligence. Some tech leaders have pushed the administration to focus more on AI and related issues in science and technology. Academic leaders are also pitching for investment in basic research.

There is little doubt that U.S. tech firms and universities are already at the forefront in developing self-driving cars, robotics, smarter health diagnostics and other advances that rely on increasingly intelligent machines. But President Donald Trump's lack of emphasis on both the economic promise and potential dangers of automation has contrasted with other world leaders who have made a vocal push to get their countries ahead.

"It's been a huge missed opportunity up until this point," said Robert Seamans, a White House economist during the Obama administration who now teaches at the NYU Stern School of Business.

China's government announced last summer a goal of becoming a global leader in artificial intelligence in just over a decade by developing skills, research and educational resources to achieve major breakthroughs. A report last month from the U.S. Congressional Research Service described China as a "leading competitor" in using AI to develop military applications, including autonomous vehicles and computer systems that can make faster and better-informed decisions.

The European Union's executive branch said last month it wants the bloc's public and private sectors to invest at least $24 billion in AI through 2020 in an attempt to remain globally competitive. The leaders of France and the UK have talked about making AI investments while also outlining concerns about developing the new technology with ethical guidelines.

John Holdren, who was the top presidential science adviser during the Obama administration, warned that the Trump administration's late entry into outlining its approach to AI reflects broader concerns about its commitment to technological advancement. Holdren noted that his former job leading the nearly 40-year-old Office of Science and Technology Policy remains unfilled.

Trump hasn't nominated a replacement, but Michael Kratsios, a deputy assistant to the president for technology policy, is hosting Thursday's meeting and expected to detail the administration's strategy.

While Seamans said the U.S. doesn't need to take a centralized approach, it will be helpful to have administration officials discuss impacts from the new technology, especially for consumers and workers whose jobs are becoming obsolete or will require new skills.

He said it's also important to make it easier for startups to participate so that the technology — and the reams of online data it learns from — isn't tightly controlled by a small set of large companies.

Dean Garfield, who heads the trade group Information Technology Industry Council, said the White House's attention to AI is "better late than never."

Garfield said that as new technology displaces some job roles, "the government is well-situated to make sure that people are also deployed in the competencies and in the places those jobs will be."

"AI will be as significant to society as the race to get to other planets and get to space was in the '50s and '60s," Garfield said.

Garfield and other attendees preparing for the meeting said they were optimistic about the administration's approach, including efforts to smooth regulations that could foster the adoption of self-driving vehicles and drones.

Ian Buck, who leads the data center business for chipmaker Nvidia, said his company also supports the administration's plans to make more government data sets available to researchers.

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