Obama, Trump, and the Regulation of Artificial Intelligence

Near the end of his second term, President Obama announced a series of workshops and government working groups tasked with “Preparing for the Future of Artificial Intelligence.” Then, just weeks before the 2016 presidential general election, the Obama administration published two reports including one titled “The National Artificial Intelligence Research and Development Plan.” In it, Obama laid out seven strategies for AI-related R&D, including making long-term investments in AI research to enable the United States to remain a world leader in AI, developing effective methods for human-AI interaction, and ensuring the safety, security, and trustworthiness of AI systems. The Obama AI plan also included strategies for developing shared and high-quality public datasets and environments for AI training and testing, creating standards and benchmarks for evaluating AI technologies, and understanding the national AI research workforce needs. His plan also recognized the need for collaboration among researchers to address the ethical, legal, and societal implications of AI, topics that still resonate today.

Two years after Obama’s AI announcement, the Trump administration in May 2018 convened an Artificial Intelligence Summit at the White House and then published an “Artificial Intelligence for the American People” fact sheet highlighting President Trump’s AI priorities. The fact sheet highlights the President’s goal of funding fundamental AI R&D, including in the areas of computing infrastructure, machine learning, and autonomous systems. Trump’s AI priorities also include a focus on developing workforce training in AI, seeking a strategic military advantage in AI, and leveraging AI technology to improve efficiency in delivering government services. The Trump fact sheet makes no mention of Obama’s AI plan.

Despite some general overlap and commonality between Obama’s and Trump’s AI goals and strategies, such as funding for AI, workforce training, and maintaining the United States’ global leadership in AI, one difference stands out in stark contrast: regulating AI technology. While Obama’s AI strategy did not expressly call for regulating AI, it nonetheless recognized a need for setting regulatory policy for AI-enabled products. To that end, Obama recommended drawing on appropriate technical expertise at the senior level of government and recruiting the necessary AI technical talent as necessary to ensure that there are sufficient technical seats at the table in regulatory policy discussions.

Trump, on the other hand, has rolled back regulations across the board in a number of different governmental areas and, in the case of AI, has stated that he would seek to “remove regulatory barriers” to AI innovation to foster new American industries and deployment of AI-powered technologies. With the Trump administration’s express concerns about China’s plan to dominate high tech, including AI, by 2025, as well as Congressional efforts at targeted AI legislation slowed in various committees, any substantive federal action toward regulating AI appears to be a long way off. That should be good news to many in the US tech industry who have long resisted efforts to regulate AI technologies and the AI industry.