The fiscal year 2021 federal budget proposal unveiled by the White House on Monday, February 10, would provide increased strategic investment for R&D in artificial intelligence and quantum computing. Seeking to advance US scientific leadership and economic competitiveness in what it calls the “industries of the future,” President Trump’s budget request represents the first installment in the Administration’s commitment to double non-defense-related AI and quantum computing funding from the 2020 budget to 2022. Lawmakers will now have the opportunity to debate and amend the budget proposal in the upcoming appropriations process.
References to AI recur throughout the budget document in the context of countering emerging threats as well as delivering more efficient government services, from agricultural programs to commerce, energy and defense. Under the budget proposal, more than $830 million would be provided to the National Science Foundation for AI-related grants and interdisciplinary research institutes – a 70 percent increase over the current budget. The Administration’s spending blueprint also calls for $125 million for the Energy Department’s Office of Science for AI Research, $100 million for a competitive grant program in the Agriculture Department to promote the application of AI and other advanced technologies in agriculture systems, and $50 million for new research at the National Institutes of Health on chronic diseases using AI and related approaches.
The proposed funding increases for AI in the FY2021 budget, however, appear to come at the expense of other scientific research accounts. In doing so, the Administration has evidently prioritized AI over other technologies in its year-long budget formulation process and is essentially placing its bets on AI in being as transformative as many economists have predicted.
In recent months, the White House has been increasingly active in terms of messaging the broader national strategy for the United States as it relates to AI. In policy speeches, roundtables, budget supplements, and agency announcements, White House officials have openly described the race to develop AI in terms of defending American values against competition from China.
In announcing the budget this week, Michael Kratsios, Chief Technology Officer of the United States, explained that rationale for the proposed AI budget stating, “I think with regards to some of our adversaries and others around the world [that] utilize this technology, it’s imperative that the US continues to lead in technologies like AI. We see others around the world using artificial intelligence to track their people, to imprison ethnic minorities, to monitor political dissidents, and this is something that does not align with American values and makes our leadership position even more of an imperative.”
In the defense space, the proposed Pentagon budget for fiscal year 2021 also provides for significant increases in AI investment. Under the President’s proposal, the Defense Department’s AI budget, predominantly located within the Office of the Undersecretary for Research and Engineering, would increase from $780 million this year to $841 million in FY2021. DoD’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC) would see its AI spending increase from $242 million in FY2020 to $290 million in FY2021. Of note, a new “Joint Warfighting" national mission initiative, which includes “accelerating sensor to shooter time lines” is now the top priority, according to Lt. General Jack Shanahan, Director of the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) projects an investment of $459 million in AI R&D next year, a $50 million increase from this year.
While the president’s budget proposal is often dismissed as “dead on arrival” in Congress, enhancing US leadership in AI is gaining broad bipartisan support within the Executive Branch and on Capitol Hill.
In January, the White House released regulatory guidance to executive agencies which effectively encourages agencies to conduct pilot programs, experimentation, and voluntary standards as opposed to regulations. The newly proposed budget increases for AI are likely to address fundamental challenges and concerns related to AI about explainability and can be expected to enable agencies, particularly the Department of Energy, Agriculture, and National Institute of Health to pursue the sort of non-regulatory approaches encouraged by the White House in January.
As lawmakers now begin the process of drafting the appropriations legislation that will fund the federal government during the next fiscal year, AI and related issues will figure prominently – and the President’s budget proposal and other AI initiatives will inform that process.
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