Last month the Congressional Subcommittee on Information Technology began a three-part series of hearings to break through the myths and the hype to gain a real understanding of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the role it can play in the Federal government.

While the first hearing focused on industry and academic experts, Wednesday’s hearing saw testimony exclusively from government leaders, including representatives from Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), General Services Administration (GSA), National Science Foundation (NSF), and Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

During the hearing one point was raised that bears repeating–AI isn’t science fiction, its science reality.

“When people hear ‘artificial intelligence,’ their minds often wander to the realm of science fiction,” said Keith Nakasone, deputy assistant commissioner, acquisition operations, Office of Information Technology Category, GSA. “There is also a belief that AI is in the future, rather than in the present. Concerted effort by policymakers of all levels to help change this narrative will be critical in promoting acceptance and adoption of AI by more and more entities.”

The major takeaway from the hearing echoes Nakasone’s testimony. Government has to take an active role in AI. To that end, government needs to understand its goals for the technology, what role it should play in advancing AI, and the importance of funding research and development (R&D) at the Federal level.

Everyone at the hearing agreed that AI holds great promise for the Federal government, but based on expert testimony, bringing that promise to fruition won’t be cheap or easy.

Improving Government, Maintaining Global Leadership

Chairman Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, has three main objectives for AI in the government, which center around improving citizen services, lowering government costs, and making sure the United States remains a global leader in the field.

While the last objective may seem to differ from the first two, the geopolitical concerns surrounding AI came up during the first hearing last month.

“We have allies and adversaries, both nation-states and individual hackers, who are pursuing artificial intelligence with all they have because dominance in AI is a guaranteed leg up in the realm of geopolitics and economics,” Hurd said during the previous hearing.

Ranking Member Rep. Robin Kelly, D-Ill., shares Hurd’s geopolitical concerns. During her opening statement, Kelly sounded the alarm on China’s investment in AI. While President Trump’s proposed FY 2019 budget cuts or flattens non-military agency spending R&D, China is increasing its research investments, Kelly explained.

“The National Science Board and the National Science Foundation believe that China will surpass the United States in R&D investments by the end of this year,” Kelly said.

Why does this matter?

“To fully realize the benefits of AI, the United States must maintain its leadership role in promoting technological innovation,” Kelly said. “Yet, preserving the United States’ leadership role in technologies like AI will require robust Federal funding for research and development.”

What is the Government’s Role?

In his testimony, Douglas Maughan, division director, Cyber Security Division Science & Technology Directorate, DHS, laid out three ways the government can help advance AI.

“Government should move forward with adoption of emerging technologies such as AI to improve citizen services,” Maughan said. “Government also plays an important role in promoting research and development. Government should ensure it is informed of developments in the private sector, while continuing to support AI research and development, and promote the use of AI technology to create government efficiencies and enhance the public good.

Kelly raised a concern that, until recently, hasn’t gotten much airtime in subcommittee hearings–how U.S. Federal immigration policy impacts the country’s standing in the field of AI.

“Until recently, the United States was able to attract Ph.D. students from other countries to help supplement the domestic workforce,” Kelly said. “The New York Times reported last year that not only is Google opening AI innovation hubs in Canada because of concerns with American immigration policies but that the United States has already turned away promising people in the AI field.”

The comments were obviously directed at the Trump Administration’s recent changes to U.S. immigration policy–including the contentious travel ban and changes to the visa and immigration process.

Funding is Key

In an amusing line of questioning, Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-V.A., led John Everett, deputy director, Information Innovation Office, DARPA, on a tour of DARPA’s greatest hits. Essentially, Connolly stressed how Federal R&D investments created the Internet, GPS technology, and drones.

“I’m trying to make a point here, there’s a lot of loose talk that the government can’t do anything right,” Connolly said. “That’s not true. You four represent the face of a Federal government that has transformed the world with its R&D investment.”

Connolly built on Kelly’s earlier concerns, saying proposed budget cuts concerned him.

“When we say we’re going to cut a couple billion dollars out of Federal R&D, I tremble at what we are cutting,” Connolly said. “Is it the next GPS? The next Human Genome Project? The next Internet? We don’t know. But the opportunity cost, I fear, is enormous. This member of Congress trembles at a 21 percent cut in R&D spending.”

Government experts testifying expressed their support for significant investment in Federal R&D efforts.

“Federal investments in fundamental, long-term, transformative AI research, as well as education, are critical to achieving and sustaining U.S. technological leadership in this area,” said James Kurose, assistant director of NSF for Computer and Information Science and Engineering.

Bringing a technology from science fiction to science reality isn’t easy. The subcommittee will reconvene in April for the series’ final hearing. Legislators will, once again, take a deep dive into AI–looking to separate fiction from reality.

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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk's Assistant Copy & Production Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.