Hanging in the Balance: More Research Resources, Collaboration Needed for AI to Reach Its Potential, Experts Say

At GTC21, Congressional leaders and policy experts discuss the latest AI legislation and what still needs to be done.
by Tony Kontzer

As AI is increasingly established as a world-changing field, the U.S. has an opportunity not only to demonstrate global leadership, but to establish a solid economic foundation for the future of the technology.

A panel of experts convened last week at GTC to shed light on this topic, with the co-chairs of the Congressional AI Caucus, U.S. Reps. Jerry McNerney (D-CA) and Anthony Gonzalez (R-OH), leading a discussion that reflects Washington’s growing interest in the topic.

The panel also included Hodan Omaar, AI policy lead at the Center for Data Innovation; Russell Wald, director of policy at Stanford University’s Institute for Human-Centered AI and Damon Woodard, director of AI partnerships at University of Florida’s AI Initiative.

“AI is getting increased interest among my colleagues on both sides of the aisle, and this is going to continue for some time,” McNerney said. Given that momentum, Gonzalez said the U.S. should be on the bleeding edge of AI development “for both economic and geopolitical reasons.”

Along those lines, the first thing the pair wanted to learn was how panelists viewed the importance of legislative efforts to fund and support AI research and development.

Wald expressed enthusiasm over legislation Congress passed last year as part of the National Defense Authorization Act, which he said would have an expansive effect on the market for AI.

Wald also said he was surprised at the findings of Stanford’s “Government by Algorithm” report, which detailed the federal government’s use of AI to do things such as track suicide risk among veterans, support SEC insider trading investigations and identify Medicare fraud.

Woodard suggested that continued leadership and innovation coming from Washington is critical if AI is to deliver on its promise.

“AI can play a big role in the economy,” said Woodard. “Having this kind of input from the government is important before we can have the kind of advancements that we need.”

The Role of Universities

Woodard and UF are already doing their part. Woodard’s role at the school includes helping transform it into a so-called “AI university.” In response to a question from Gonzalez about what that transition looks like, he said it required establishing a world-class AI infrastructure, performing cutting-edge AI research and incorporating AI throughout the curriculum.

“We want to make sure every student has some exposure to AI as it relates to their field of study,” said Woodard.

He said the school has more than 200 faculty members engaged in AI-related research, and that it’s committed to hiring 100 more. And while Woodard believes the university’s efforts will lead to more qualified AI professionals and AI innovation around its campus in Gainesville, he also said that partnerships, especially those that encourage diversity, are critical to encouraging more widespread industry development.

Along those lines, UF has joined an engineering consortium and will provide 15 historically Black colleges and two Hispanic-serving schools with access to its prodigious AI resources.

Omaar said such efforts are especially important when considering how unequally the high performance computing resources needed to conduct AI research are distributed.

In response to a question from McNerney about a recent National Science Foundation report, Omaar noted the finding that the U.S. Department of Energy is only providing support to about a third of the researchers seeking access to HPC resources.

“Many universities are conducting AI research without the tools they need,” she said.

Omaar said she’d like to see the NSF focus its funding on supporting efforts in states where HPC resources are scarce but AI research activity is high.

McNerney announced that he would soon introduce legislation requiring NSF to determine what AI resources are necessary for significant research output.

Moving Toward National AI Research Resources

The myriad challenges points to the benefits that could come from a more coordinated national effort. To that end, Gonzalez asked about the potential of the National AI Research Resource Task Force Act, and the national AI research cloud that would result from it.

Wald called the legislation a “game-changing AI initiative,” noting that the limited number of universities with AI research computing resources has pushed AI research into the private sector, where the objectives are driven by shorter-term financial goals rather than long-term societal benefits.

“What we see is an imbalance in the AI research ecosystem,” Wald said. The federal legislation would establish a pathway for a national AI research hub, which “has the potential to unleash American AI innovation,” he said.

The way Omaar sees it, the nationwide collaboration that would likely result — among politicians, industry and academia — is necessary for AI to reach its potential.

“Since AI will impact us all,” she said, “it’s going to need everyone’s contribution.”