Growing an AI Ecosystem

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Written by Samantha Thorne

Washington, DC—Artificial intelligence (AI) is no longer an “emerging” technology: it has arrived and it intends to stay. As AI technology has percolated into various facets of modern day life, we wonder how society intends to fully reap its benefits. In an effort to address these uncertainties, panelists at a recent C_TEC and BSA AI Summit highlighted collaborative approaches that government, industry and academia must pursue as America’s technological environment burgeons. Prioritizing research and development (R&D) investment, cross-sector cooperation and STEM education, the speakers explored methods to strengthen American innovation and better equip the U.S. workforce “for the jobs of tomorrow.”

The Federal Government and AI

Michael Kratsios, Deputy U.S. Chief Technology Officer and Deputy Assistant to the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), explained that the federal government prioritizes policies that will drive AI innovation. The current administration’s three goals to deregulate the tech industry, grow the economy and jobs and strengthen national security, Kratsios argues, will make the United States more AI friendly.

Recognizing that governmental regulations have caused companies such as Google and Amazon to travel outside of American borders to test new technologies like unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), Kratsios noted that tech “investments seem to have [a] flavor of risk association with the way the government interacts with [them].” However, Kratsios asserted that OSTP can help implement tech policies that will cultivate entrepreneurial behavior within America.

“We believe the greatest drivers of economic growth are going to be emerging technologies and we need to create a regulatory environment that encourages and fosters that innovation,” Kratsios stated.

Removing barriers to AI innovation, improving R&D leadership and analyzing AI’s impact on the workforce, Kratsios explained, will allow the United States to leverage artificial intelligence and its benefits. He keyed in on the administration’s role in signaling to agencies that they should prioritize AI and allocate funds towards specific research areas. To achieve this, cross-sector communication must occur with the government releasing federal data into the hands of companies and researchers. A “collaborative, creative, free and open dialogue” between governmental agencies, academia and private companies will counteract a top-down approach to problem solving and show that AI is not industry specific nor isolated to Silicon Valley.

Researching the Future

The “Researching the Future” panel embodied AI partnerships by assembling speakers from academia, government and the private sector. They discussed the need for policy makers and regulators to not impede AI progress—prioritizing collaborations and providing specific examples.

David Cox, Director of the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab, explained how IBM and MIT have teamed up in an industry-academic collaboration to provide fundamental artificial intelligence research. He commended IBM and private industry’s breakthrough role in today’s “innovation ecosystem” and outlined the importance of driving AI conversations across sectors to guarantee that its technology is as prevalent, responsible and transparent as possible, while catering to a large audience.

“AI is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed,” Cox commented. “I see my job as distributing it everywhere.”

OSTP’s Assistant Director for Artificial Intelligence, James Kurose, noted the uniqueness of technological collaboration in the United States. Citing the “Tire Tracks” diagram, Kurose asserted that historically, there has been a flow of ideas between different IT areas and between government, universities and companies. This has contributed to America’s “three legged” technological environment, which has been calibrated by cross-sector partnerships.

However, Elsa Kania, an Adjunct Fellow with the Technology and National Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, noticed that while this three legged approach to AI development is historically unique to the United States, China has begun expanding AI partnerships, with Chinese companies like Baidu and Tencent serving as examples. These companies in concert with universities focus on talent development, research and joint laboratories, revealing that partnerships are the future of global tech advancement.

The panelists warned against the privatization of AI and the “hollowing out of academia” as industry has employed leading professors and researchers, with Uber’s recruitment of Carnegie Mellon’s robotic department serving as a case in point. Prioritizing a “stable hybrid” talent model between companies and universities, the speakers advised sectors to unite in order to capitalize on their individual strengths—namely academia’s long-time horizon, government’s funding and resources and industry’s capital and talent. Doing so will foster both synergistic growth and build American competitiveness.

An Intelligent Workforce

The second panel focused on how to prepare American workers for AI disruptions to the workplace. The speakers noticed that artificial intelligence has created a mismatch between workers and jobs, with the amount of AI jobs available far exceeding the number of workers qualified to fill them, caused by a “skills shortage.”

To overcome this “skills shortage,” the speakers noted that K–12 education needs to prioritize STEM education as a vast number of schools do not have computer science programs. Cameron Wilson, COO and President of Code.org Advocacy Coalition, argued that computer science education needs improvement since AI is where jobs are and will continue to be.

“[Computing jobs] are the number one source of all new wages in the United States,” Wilson stated. “You’re really going to need a foundation in computing and computer science to able to either take advantage of those jobs in the workplace or deal with workforce disruptions.”

A large obstruction to schools implementing computer science (CS) education is a lack of qualified teachers as a “skills shortage” rears its ugly head again. However, Portia Wu, Director of Workforce Policy at Microsoft, outlined Microsoft’s  Technology Education and Literacy in School (TEALS) program, in which engineers from Microsoft and other companies volunteer for two years to provide CS training to local teachers—focusing on underserved communities to ensure that underrepresented groups receive equitable STEM education.

Matt Etchison, Vice President of Ivy Tech’s IT for Workforce Alignment, discussed how Ivy Tech matches their curriculum to technology skill sets that companies desire. As the community college teams with big tech companies like Amazon, Google and Microsoft, its goal is to implement a direct educational pathway between academia and industry, attached with an adaptive curriculum, so that a college degree has definitive CS and machine learning skills associated with it. By partnering with the private sector, the community college prepares its students for AI’s disruption to the workforce.

The Future of Work

To capture artificial intelligence’s benefits while protecting American workers, the United States must increase R&D investments, build cross-sector partnerships and prioritize STEM education. As AI continues to seep into the future of work, governments, academia and industry must collaborate to ensure that advanced technology does not flood the U.S. economy and its workplace, but rather nourishes it.