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White House technology official Michael Kratsios addresses scores of executives, experts and officials at a White House summit focusing on artificial intelligence in 2018. (White House OSTP Photo / Erik Jacobs)

The Trump administration is updating the Obama administration’s strategy for artificial intelligence to put more emphasis on public-private partnerships like the one forged this year by Amazon and the National Science Foundation.

Three years after the initial strategic plan for AI research and development was released, the update was issued online overnight. It makes tweaks in the seven policy priorities that were laid out in the waning days of the Obama White House, and adds public-private partnerships as an eighth priority.

The R&D strategy is part of a broader set of policies known as the American AI Initiative, which was the subject of an executive order signed by President Donald Trump in February.

“The landscape for AI R&D is becoming increasingly complex, due to the significant investments being made by industry, academia and nonprofit organizations, and AI advancements are progressing rapidly,” said Michael Kratsios, who is the White House’s deputy chief technology officer and is Trump’s pick to take on the CTO role.

“The federal government must therefore continually re-evaluate its priorities for AI R&D investments to ensure that investments continue to advance the cutting edge of the field and are not duplicative of industry investments,” Kratsios told reporters during a teleconference on Thursday.

The NSF-Amazon collaboration on fairness in AI, announced in March, serves as an example of the kind of public-private partnerships the White House is looking for, said Lynne Parker, assistant director for artificial intelligence at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

That program calls for an initial $7.6 million to be awarded to researchers in the form of three-year grants ranging from $750,000 to $1.2 million. Follow-up funding rounds could boost the program’s total payout to as much as $20 million.

Amazon is providing half the money for the grants, but has no say in which research projects get the money. The deadline for submitting the first round of proposals is next week.

The NSF-Amazon program focuses on ways to head off algorithmic bias and promote fairness in AI, which is one of the field’s big ethical issues. Amazon itself came in for criticism on that score this year when researchers found that its facial recognition software registered higher error rates for identifying women and dark-skinned faces.

The collaboration isn’t without controversy. Even though the company doesn’t select which projects get funded, some researchers may be reluctant to have their work supported by Amazon’s money. Back in March, UCLA information scientist Sarah Roberts tweeted that the arrangement was “interesting” but made her wonder about having “a lot of foxes guard the henhouse.”

Parker said other public-private partnerships include the Defense Innovation Unit, a Pentagon program that fast-tracks contracts for cutting-edge technologies in AI and other fields; and the Department of Health and Human Services’ Health Tech Sprint initiative, which aims to accelerate advances in health care through AI.

For what it’s worth, the seven R&D priorities that were carried over from the 2016 strategic plan are:

  • Make long-term investments in AI research.
  • Develop effective methods for human-AI collaboration.
  • Understand and address the ethical, legal and societal implications of AI.
  • Ensure the safety and security of AI systems.
  • Develo shared public datasets and environments for AI training and testing.
  • Measure and evaluage AI technologies through standards and benchmarks.
  • Better understand the national AI R&D workforce needs.

Some questions still surround just how much the White House is aiming to boost AI research funding. Officials said that federal agencies were in the process of breaking out their funding requests for AI R&D for a supplementary budget report that’s due to be issued this summer.

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