As Congress pushes ‘piecemeal’ AI bills, two lawmakers press for cohesive strategy

July 24, 2020
In The News

As anxiety over Chinese advancements in emerging technologies spikes in Washington, Congress is scrambling to pass legislation to shore up America’s position in the global race for supremacy in artificial intelligence.

Policy experts welcome Capitol Hill’s urgency. But Martijn Rasser, a senior technology and national security fellow at the Center for New American Security, suggested the effort remains disjointed—particularly when compared to Beijing’s meticulous, whole-of-government approach to AI.

“There’s a lot of activity, but unfortunately it’s very much piecemeal still,” Rasser said.

On Tuesday, Rasser said he expected a long-awaited, bipartisan national strategy on AI promised last October by Reps. Will Hurd and Robin Kelly to provide Congress with some much-needed focus.

“My hope would be that once that’s out there, the House and Senate start thinking more strategically about all these individual bills and amendments that are floating out there, so you can take a more coherent approach to it,” he said.

Rasser’s wait is over. On Thursday the two lawmakers, in coordination with the Bipartisan Policy Center, a centrist think tank, unveiled the first in a series of four reports meant to be a road map for Washington’s future efforts on AI.

Shared first with National Journal, the paper released Thursday focuses on how lawmakers should prepare for and respond to the tremendous turmoil AI is expected to bring to the U.S. workforce. The remaining three reports, set to be released over the coming weeks, will focus on the national security, ethics, and research-and-development questions surrounding federal AI policy.

“AI is already having a disruptive role in society, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to have a negative role in our country’s future,” Hurd said in a statement. “If we provide our kids and workers with the tools to work in AI, we will have prepared them for it. This is how we take advantage of technology before it takes advantage of us.”

“This white paper puts forward an actionable path forward to ensure the benefits of AI are shared equally and equitably by all,” Kelly said in a statement. “We cannot allow technology to widen the have-have not divide in our nation.”

The report contains 25 recommendations, most directed at specific congressional committees and federal agencies. They press Capitol Hill to increase funding for existing technology-education programs and to create new programs where needed, to expand Pell Grant eligibility to include AI-focused job-training programs, to establish Lifelong Learning Accounts that match employee and employer funds for on-the-job AI training, and to reform the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act to match the demands of an AI-driven economy. They also call for major new efforts at the Departments of Education and Labor, including a push to study and promote “last-mile training” programs that boost the technical and soft skills employers require without the need to pursue a costly and time-consuming degree.

The new strategy comes as Congress, frantic with worry over China’s massive AI investments, drives ahead with several bills designed to give the U.S. an edge in the emerging technology.

Several AI amendments, including at least one related to workforce development, are currently in the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act. And on Wednesday, the Senate Commerce Committee advanced two major pieces of legislation to enhance federal efforts around AI. One of those bills—the Advancing Artificial Intelligence Research Act, sponsored by Sen. Cory Gardner—would inject $1.25 billion over the next 5 years into a new AI research program run by the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Tim Hwang, an AI researcher at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology, said he welcomes the effort by Gardner and others to put real money down for federal AI research. But Hwang also said he sees a fundamental disconnect between the needs of the AI research community and the areas where Congress spends most of its time and energy.

“A lot of the policy discussion remains, ‘Let’s throw more money at it; let’s get more AI, bigger AI, better AI,’” Hwang said. “But I think that is still not working at the level of granularity we really need to think about what, specifically, do we want to advance to ensure U.S. leadership in this space.

“We’re acting nationally, but I think I’m still waiting on a strategy to emerge,” he said.

It’s not yet clear whether Hurd and Kelly’s new strategic vision will take root in Washington. In a town already awash with AI policy commissions and white papers, there’s a substantial risk that their recommendations become lost in the noise.

But very few of the AI strategies now percolating have direct buy-in from sitting members of Congress. Jordan LaPier, a spokesman for the Bipartisan Policy Center, said officials from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and several other members of Congress have been involved in parts of the process. And the direct participation of Hurd—a figure widely respected on both sides of the aisle for his expertise in emerging technologies—can’t be discounted.

Hurd, however, is retiring from Congress at the end of the year. His absence may make it tougher to ensure his strategy’s recommendations are shepherded through the byzantine congressional committee structure.

Hurd told National Journal that after his departure, he’ll continue to advocate for “American technological leadership” in the media, academia, and the private sector. He also said he’ll do what he can to help Kelly push the strategy from within Congress.

And in the meantime? “I’m going to run through the tape, and I will advocate for technological modernization in the government until my last day in Congress,” Hurd said.