AI- Policies for the Next Administration

This piece considers the general state of policy on AI and also gives some numbers to the federal activity encouraging research and application in this field.

Growing interest in Artificial Intelligence (AI) comes from a range of audiences including academia, commercial industry, the entertainment industry, and now the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). On October 12, 2016, OSTP released two new documents on AI. The National Artificial Intelligence Research and Development Strategic Plan is a high level framework for prioritizing and coordinating federal research and development (R&D) to advance AI. A companion piece, Preparing for the Future of Artificial Intelligence, discusses the technologies that can be identified as AI and how these may be used to benefit society. A third document, to be authored by the President’s Council of Economic Advisors and released later this year, will explore how AI might affect employment.

AI—along with related initiatives on topics ranging from precision medicine to the Internet of Things (IoT)—was also showcased at the White House Frontiers Conference. But the winds of change blow fiercely in election years. With the presidential election approaching, one key task for the incoming administration will be to take account of current OSTP policies and determine whether these will be bolstered or recast. The rest of this piece considers: How can the next administration advance current policies? And what can be done in and beyond the White House to ensure that AI R&D remains a national priority in the coming years?

There are many technologies that can be grouped under the designation of AI, from general techniques to specific applications.  One general technology is deep learning, which is a set of techniques for gradually structuring data by defining it in layers. A more specific application is machine translation, which powers the familiar service Google Translate. While many AI technologies were initially created in research laboratories, innovation in AI technology is increasingly driven by industry, thanks to (for example) market incentives for investing in digital personal assistants and autonomous driving.

Any administration that makes AI a priority will want to see the US emerge as a global leader. Unfortunately, as a relatively new area of broad public interest the exact levels of financial investment in AI research are not well-defined. Thus, determining where funding originates or how exactly it is spent is challenging. As one starting point, the National AI R&D strategy gives a number of $1.1 billion in unclassified, federally funded R&D for AI. [1] However, without more statistics for AI investment, it is difficult to compare US federal investments with funding in other countries. Some other approximations of productivity are possible, including comparing the number of relevant journal articles and patents in countries like China and the US (e.g., NSTC’s strategy in the National Artificial Intelligence Research and Development Strategic Plan), or comparing the number of computer science publications by country.[2] Continue reading “AI- Policies for the Next Administration”

Reflections on Bridging the Gulf

By Christian Belcher, Departing Commons Lab Intern

EachChristian year the Commons Lab hosts a number of Interns for 3-12 month appointments. These Interns support our research and outreach efforts, learning about citizen science and meeting key community members in the process. Because we are interested in understanding how newcomers appreciate the paradigm of citizen science, we ask each to blog about their experiences during their last week at the Wilson Center.

Christian Belcher is a rising senior at Georgetown University, majoring in Political Economy and minoring in Political and Social Thought. He hopes to shape public policy one day by employing the skills he has garnered in both the professional and academic settings.

Admittedly, I haven’t taken a science class since my freshman year of college – an introductory course in astronomy aimed at appeasing the “monkey on my back” that was general education requirements. To make matters worse, I’m about as fluent in Python or C++ as I am in Esperanto. So at first glance, I was perhaps the least-likely candidate for an internship with the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Science, Technology, and Innovation Program. That said, the skill transfer from previous academic research projects, and the value of an “outsider perspective,” enabled me to feel that, despite being out-of-my-league at times, at least I was playing the same sport.

The initial unfamiliarity, and subsequent intimidation, that I felt during my first week on the job may in fact mirror how other laymen regard professional science as a whole. But if that is at all the case, then citizen science projects are perhaps the best way to address these inhibitions; they help bridge the gulf between the public and the ivory tower of academia. Citizen science is science democratized. As such, it presents us with many of the same opportunities and challenges that face our system of government today. Just as we should strive to increase voter turnout, we must encourage participation in community-based science. There is a substantial amount of overlap between the most politically-active demographics, and those most likely to participate in a citizen science project – neither of which offers an accurate depiction of the population as a whole.

I believe that we’ve barely scratched the surface of the tremendous potential that citizen science and crowdsourcing methods bare, for the citizen, the scientist, and society alike. Whether it’s documenting the effects of climate change, altered migratory patterns, or health diagnostics for epidemiological studies, anyone with access to a computer or smartphone can make meaningful contributions to revolutionary studies. The field is still in its adolescence; common vocabularies and standardization are on their way, along with federal policies aimed proliferating their implementation. The Holdren memo got the ball rolling, but what’s next? How about integrating a nation-wide citizen science project into primary school curricula? First-graders in Alaska have proven invaluable in the effort to document the spread of invasive species – imagine what fifty states’ worth of them could do.

Crowdsourcing has already begun to stand on its own, and proven profitable to the private sector, through platforms like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Researchers and companies are starting to appreciate the “wisdom of the crowd,” and won’t need the training wheels of federal backing much longer. That said, I think that the role played by the federal government, and federally sponsored platforms like and, will only become more invaluable in time. And with ubiquity will come an even greater demand for accessible resources and best practices, the kind provided and promoted by groups like the CSA, ECSA, and ACSA. Who knows, maybe there will be a day when crowdsourcing and citizen science are seen not as novel or innovative, but normal and instinctive.