AI Emerges as US Priority in Budget Talks

By George Leopold

August 27, 2020

Among a lengthy list of U.S. technology initiatives included in pending budget legislation is a proposed National Artificial Intelligence Initiative that would be managed across several science agencies.

The AI initiative is incorporated into the House version of the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), one of the few budget bills approved by Congress each year. House and Senate conferees are expected to iron out differences in their versions of the NDAA beginning after Labor Day.

Observers predict final passage of most of the congressional technology initiatives, which also include funding for microelectronics, quantum computing and 5G wireless R&D. A key Senate sponsor of an effort to renew U.S. chip manufacturing, Mark Warner, D-Va., said that provision contains “real money.”

The House provision launching an AI initiative allocates $1.157 billion to launch a multi-agency effort to advance U.S. AI R&D, according to a budget summary released this week by the American Institute of Physics.  The National Science Foundation, which funds university research, would receive the lion’s share, $868 million. The Energy Department, which oversees HPC development, gets $215 million in the House bill while $64 million is earmarked for the National Institute of Standards and Technology. The appropriation for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is $10 million.

If approved by a conference committee, the AI initiative is expected to be structured along the lines of the recently launched National Quantum Initiative, which is administered by several science agencies.

According to a report released in mid-August by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, fiscal 2020 federal investments in AI R&D totaled $1.118 billion, and would increase to just over $1.5 billion in the proposed fiscal 2021 budget.

The House spending bill also contains a provision elevating responsibility for the Defense Department’s Joint AI Center from the department’s CIO to the office of the deputy defense secretary. The AI unit was established in 2018. The House version also would give the AI center acquisition authority and establish an oversight board.

DoD’s AI efforts have drawn criticism for lack of focus. For example, each of the military services is formulating separate AI strategies.

Much of DoD’s current research efforts are overseen by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which is using its Electronics Resurgence Initiative (ERI) to pursue AI development in areas like autonomy and new processor architectures.

Among the ERI efforts targeting AI applications is FRANC, for Foundations Required for Novel Compute. Architectures. One goal is modifying traditional separation of processors and memory components to boost processing performance for applications limited by size, weight and power, including edge AI.

“U.S. leadership in microelectronics is essential to U.S. leadership in artificial intelligence,” Gilman Louie, a member of the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, told a recent ERI virtual conference.

The AI commission recently recommended increasing annual funding for ERI to $500 million. Those efforts would be supplemented by a proposed national microelectronics laboratory and incubator for developing AI hardware, Louie said.

Some of those funding proposals have been incorporated into the NDAA as it heads to a budget conference next month. “We’ll see what survives [the House-Senate] conference, but I think most of these will make it through,” said James Lewis, director of the technology and public policy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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