White House proposes big increase in A.I. and quantum spending while cutting other sciences

February 11, 2020, 10:33 PM UTC

President Donald Trump proposed a big increase in government spending on artificial intelligence and quantum computing while slashing funding of other scientific research.

In its federal budget request for next year, the White House on Tuesday detailed plans to double spending on cutting-edge computer science for civilian uses by 2022, to over $2 billion annually. 

Some of the areas the White House highlights includes increasing the National Science Foundation’s spending on A.I. by 70%-year-over-year to over $830 million, bumping A.I. research spending by 76% at the Department of Energy’s Office of Science to $125 million, and calling on the National Institutes of Health to spend “$50 million for new research on chronic diseases using AI and related approaches.”

But the increase in A.I. and quantum computing comes at a tradeoff to investing into other areas of science. For instance, the White House’s proposal would cut funding to the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget by 26% year-over-year to $6.7 billion, while providing “just $478 million for science and technology, a decrease of 33%,” noted scientific publication Nature. And while the White House is increasing the Energy Department’s A.I. spending, it’s reducing overall funding to the agency’s office of science by 17% to $5.8 billion.

Sridhar Tayur, a Carnegie Mellon University professor who specializes in business technology and quantum computing, told Fortune the White House’s proposed budget is geared toward building the infrastructure for sophisticated data analysis that could potentially impact multiple disciplines. Although some areas of scientific research are being cut, the White House hopes that A.I. and quantum computing’s potential impact could be so big, it would make up for the reduced overall spending.

Tayur commends the proposed federal spending increase in A.I. and quantum because he believes the government is crucial for funding transformative research, which tech giants like Google and Facebook don’t do despite spending billions of dollars annually on A.I.

“I don’t think they are doing fundamental research,” Tayur said. “They are doing research in A.I. that benefits their business models.”

Martijn Rasser, a senior fellow for public policy at the think tank Center for a New American Security, is distraught about the White House’s proposed research budget. Although Rasser commends the A.I. spending increase, he believes “it is really rolling the dice to put all your money behind artificial intelligence and quantum information sciences for being the things to bet on in the future.”

“What about biotech, what about genomics and all these areas where they are cutting funding?” Rasser asked.

Rasser imagined the uncomfortable scenario of A.I. faculty members receiving federal grant money instead of professors in other university departments.

“As an A.I. scientist, you have to look at your colleagues in the faculty lunch room and say, ‘Well sorry, your work in aeronautics is not considered important to the United States economy and national security anymore,” Rasser said.

Especially concerning for Rasser is that the National Institutes of Health’s funding could decline 7% to $38.7 billion if the White House’s 2021 budget proposal is passed. It’s not good timing considering that the world is “in the midsts of perhaps the major epidemic of the coronavirus,” he added.

But Darrell West, the vice president and director of the left-leaning policy think tank Brookings Institution, believes the White House is right in placing its bets on A.I. and quantum computing, saying that cutting-edge data crunching will be the core technology that drives other fields. 

Still, West cautions, “We do want to be careful we don’t end up in a situation where one hand gives while the other hand takes away.”

Last year when the White House first proposed its plans on “Maintaining American Leadership in Artificial Intelligence,” some critics slammed the initiative for failing to provide specific policy recommendations or detailed spending plans. West acknowledged that last year’s first proposal was “vague,” but said the new proposal is an improvement, especially considering that “A.I. is the transformative technology of our time.”

“People today are applauding the fact that we will be getting an increase in government expenditures,” West said. “I haven’t seen a lot of details on how that money will be targeted but it’s certainly a step in the right direction.”

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