White House Releases AI Report and Strategic Plan; President Obama Speaks Up on AI and Space

Barack Obama

The White House released a report titled “Preparing for the Future of Artificial Intelligence” (AI) as well as a “National Artificial Intelligence Research and Development Strategic Plan.” Meanwhile, President Obama is speaking up on AI, futuristic technologies, and space.

The ultimate goal of the US government’s AI effort is to produce new AI knowledge and technologies that provide a range of positive benefits to society, while minimizing the negative impacts. The White House report and strategic plan will be analyzed in a forthcoming Hacked article.

Obama on Current AI and the (Still Far) Singularity

2001's HAL 9000In conversation with MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito and Wired editor in chief Scott Dadich, US President Barack Obama discussed Artificial Intelligence (AI), science and technology policy, space, and the social impact of advanced emerging technologies in a Wired interview.

Political leaders often limit themselves to plausibly deniable platitudes when speaking to the media, but in this interview Obama sounds authentic (of course, at the end of his second term, he is interested in his place in history instead of re-election) and gives more space than usual to highly speculative, futuristic technologies.

“My impression, based on talking to my top science advisers, is that we’re still a reasonably long way away from [general AI],” said Obama in reply to questions about advances in AI, the prospect of general AI – machines equivalent to thinking and feeling humans – and the super AIs much smarter than humans feared by Elon Musk.

[Most] people aren’t spending a lot of time right now worrying about singularity – they are worrying about “Well, is my job going to be replaced by a machine?”

Not that Obama sounds too skeptical about wild scientific and technological speculations. He agrees with Joi Ito’s suggestion that general AI could happen after “a dozen or two different breakthroughs,” and the need to monitor relevant developments with the hand close to the power plug:

Right when you see it about to happen, you gotta yank that electricity out of the wall, man.

In the meantime, President Obama is more worried about the impact of emerging narrow AI systems based on neural networks and deep learning. If Google’s AlphaGo can beat top human players at Go, a breakthrough that until only a few months ago was considered as much beyond current reach, then algorithms able to maximize profits on the stock market are probably within sight. “And if one person or organization got there first, they could bring down the stock market pretty quickly,” says the President.

Besides the job market and the stock market, a sector where currently emerging narrow AI technology is poised to have a big impact is cybersecurity. “[My] directive to my national security team is, don’t worry as much yet about machines taking over the world,” says Obama. “Worry about the capacity of either nonstate actors or hostile actors to penetrate systems… because those who might deploy these systems are going to be a lot better now.”

“The way I’ve been thinking about the regulatory structure as AI emerges is that, early in a technology, a thousand flowers should bloom,” says Obama in praise of a light touch regulatory approach. Then, as technologies emerge and mature, the govern­ment needs to be involved a little bit more. Similarly, when it comes to internet monitoring and survaillance, Obama prefers a balanced approach that “allows us to get at the bad guys but ensures that the government does not possess so much power in all of our lives that it becomes a tool for oppression.”

Barack Obama, A Big Space Guy

MarsPresident Obama is a Star Trek fan and “a big space guy.” He praises the space work done in the private sector, especially for some “What the heck, why not?” moonshots, the crazy ideas that aren’t funded by the government, and notes that “we’re still thinking about basically the same chemical reactions we were using back in the Apollo flights.”

I don’t know if dilithium crystals are out there – but, you know, we should be getting some breakthroughs.

Dilithium crystals power the faster-than-light warp drive in Star Trek. In view of Obama’s words, the private and (limited) NASA funding of research in EmDrive and related breakthrough propulsion physics makes a lot of sense.

America will take the giant leap to Mars, is the title of a CNN story written by the President himself a few days ago.

“We have set a clear goal vital to the next chapter of America’s story in space: sending humans to Mars by the 2030s and returning them safely to Earth, with the ultimate ambition to one day remain there for an extended time,” wrote the President, adding that getting to Mars will require continued cooperation between government and private innovators.

In fact, it is to be hoped that the public space program, Elon Musk’s visionary space colonization project, and other private initiatives to reach Mars and beyond, will proceed with a healthy combination of competition and cooperation.

Images from Wikimedia Commons.

Giulio Prisco is a freelance writer specialized in science, technology, business and future studies.