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President Trump signs an executive order guiding how federal agencies use AI tech

Alan Boyle
·3 min read
Robot and human hand
Artificial intelligence is expected to be an increasingly important policy issue. (Bigstock Illustration / Andrey Popov)

President Donald Trump today signed an executive order that puts the White House Office of Management and Budget in charge of drawing up a roadmap for how federal agencies use artificial intelligence software.

The roadmap, due for publication in 180 days, will cover AI applications used by the federal government for purposes other than defense or national security. The Department of Defense and the U.S. intelligence community already have drawn up a different set of rules for using AI.

Today’s order could well be the Trump administration’s final word on a technology marked by rapid innovation — and more than a little controversy.

Future regulations could have an outsized impact on Amazon and Microsoft, two of the largest developers of AI technologies. The sharpest debates have focused on facial recognition software, but there are also issues relating to algorithmic bias, data privacy and transparency.

The executive order lays out a list of nine principles, specifying that the ways in which federal agencies use AI should be lawful; purposeful and performance-driven; accurate, reliable and effective; safe, secure and resilient; understandable; responsible and traceable; regularly monitored; transparent; and accountable.

“The Trump administration is committed to advancing AI innovation that benefits all Americans and is underpinned by American values,” Michael Kratsios, the White House’s chief technology officer, said in a statement. “The executive order will foster public trust in the technology, drive government modernization, and further demonstrate America’s leadership in artificial intelligence.”

While the OMB works on its roadmap, federal agencies will draw up inventories of non-classified, non-sensitive use cases for AI. That’ll be followed by a months-long process to assess how closely those use cases follow the principles laid out in the executive order — and retire any AI applications that are found to be “developed or used in a manner that is not consistent” with the order.

To boost agencies’ expertise on AI, the executive order directs the General Services Administration to establish an AI track within the Presidential Innovation Fellows program, and calls on the Office of Personnel Management to find ways to expand the number of AI-savvy employees.

An industry source, speaking on condition of anonymity, told GeekWire in an email that the executive order “aligns with most of the principles that tech companies have already published.”

The source called special attention to the plan for making inventories of AI use cases at federal agencies, saying that “this is a new development and will increase transparency — a good thing.”

Last year, the Trump administration called for doubling federal investment in non-defense AI research and development to $2 billion annually by 2022. And in August, it established a set of seven AI research institutes at universities across the country.

It’s not clear what will happen to the executive order once President-elect Joe Biden takes over in January. Analysts expect the Biden administration to be at least as supportive of AI research, with a sharper focus on heading off AI’s potential social pitfalls. Biden’s platform calls for spending $300 billion on R&D and breakthrough technologies over the next four years, in part to counter competition from China.

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