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By: Tony Samp

Tucked away in the 4,517-page annual defense bill that just became law is an overlooked piece of legislation on artificial intelligence (AI).

Don’t worry, America. It doesn’t make every military weapon system autonomous or require brigades of robotic infantry. Instead, it’s a sensible, 63-page plan establishing a civilian-led initiative to coordinate and accelerate investments in “trustworthy” artificial intelligence systems across the federal government. In passing this legislation, the United States Congress has demonstrated that it collectively realizes that AI will be transformative, and that urgent research and development is needed to ensure the United States remains the world leader in AI.

Make no mistake, the “National Artificial Intelligence Initiative Act of 2020,” also dubbed as “Division E” of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), is the closest thing to a national strategy on AI from the United States to be formally endorsed by Congress. Division E required painstaking negotiations and bipartisan sign-off from nearly 20 committees. The fact that this many committees — each with different jurisdictions, staff, and personalities — in Congress had their handprints on this legislation is a reminder of how difficult moving a bill through the legislative process actually is; but more importantly, it is an indicator of how significant and far-reaching AI technology will be on our society and the economy. It will touch every sector — from agriculture to healthcare, to transportation to national security — and every individual will be impacted in some form or fashion whether it be their jobs, privacy, safety, or livelihood.

Specifically, this new law provides the foundation and authorizes major investments in AI, particularly within “trustworthy AI,” and endorses a whole-of-government approach to leadership in AI research and development through civilian agencies like the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and the Department of Energy. A sum of $4.8 billion is authorized through 2025 for NSF programs to support AI basic and applied research and to train an AI-skilled workforce; $1.2 billion over the same time period for Energy Department AI research; and $400 million to NIST to produce a “risk management framework” for AI and establish best practices for data sets to train AI systems.

Policy language elsewhere in the bill also makes important policy changes in AI for national security by providing new acquisition authorities to the Pentagon’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC) and elevating the reporting structure of the JAIC to the Deputy Secretary of Defense.

The bipartisan legislation could serve as a template and implementation plan for the United States to advance AI at home and abroad. But with a veto from President Trump over unrelated provisions in the NDAA, the fate of the bill was dependent on a Congressional override.  Fortunately, the override occurred on New Year’s Day.  It would have been a terrible unforced error in the technology race if this landmark AI legislation, among many other positive provisions for the US military and their families, were to have been tripped up at this stage of the legislative cycle.

In 2021, the Biden administration will take office and have the choice to either reset the United States’ position on AI or build upon the bipartisan actions taken to-date like this legislation.

The Trump administration started off slow by cutting American diplomatic personnel and initially taking a backseat on AI at international forums such as the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). It recalibrated its position, however, after concluding that AI technology is rapidly developing and that the United States must be present at the table alongside its allies and help shape the trajectory of AI consistent with American values. If absent, the United States would be ceding ground to others who would eagerly fill the void, and a real fear exists among policy leaders that technology authoritarianism will spread and shift the balance between free, open societies to closed, repressive regimes.

In response, United States government officials adopted a much more active international posture on AI at the OECD and the Global Partnership on Artificial Intelligence and framed AI as a technological arms race. On the domestic front, the Office of Science Technology and Policy took positive steps by auditing AI R&D spending across the federal government and encouraging agencies to pursue pilot programs, experiments and other approaches as alternatives to AI regulations.

The incoming Biden administration has an opportunity to foster an environment that encourages innovation for technology companies and startups while doubling down on trustworthy research and development at NSF, NIST, and cabinet agencies to establish the necessary standards and guardrails for AI systems. Overseas, it can start by signaling it intends to work with — not against — its allies, evaluate reasonable export controls, and put into place a global framework for global AI technology consistent with western values. It can also reinvigorate American diplomacy by filling diplomatic posts.

In a field as transformative as AI, the United States cannot afford to sit on the sidelines.

When politics are deeply polarizing and divisive as they have been, it’s notable that a whole-of-government AI investment and policy strategy earned the backing of Democrats and Republicans in both chambers of congress. This AI legislation ultimately made it across the finish line, and it will position the United States — and other western democracies — well for years to come.