White House officials met with executives from Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, and Oracle, as well as more traditional but technology-embracing firms such as Ford and Land O'Lakes to discuss promoting the development of artificial intelligence in the U.S.--something that President Donald Trump's administration has shown markedly little interest in up until very recently.

A year ago, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, when asked about AI, said that significant use of such technology was 50 to 100 years in the future and "not even on my radar screen." And President Trump has focused on preserving blue-collar jobs in traditional industries--precisely the type of jobs that AI threatens.

As for Congress, its members mostly seem to view AI with suspicion. A few weeks after Elon Musk told a SXSW audience that "AI is more dangerous than nukes. So why do we have no regulatory oversight?" bipartisan legislation was introduced in both the House and Senate to set up an advisory council to oversee, and potentially regulate, AI development.

So what's changed? In a word: China. The Chinese government has announced its goal to become a world leader in artificial intelligence as part of its Made in China 2025 initiative. It has declared that leading in AI is one of the government's top priorities. The Chinese government and Chinese VC firms are pouring billions into AI development and startups, coordinating with university researchers. Suddenly, our elected leaders have a new fear about AI--that while they're dithering about how to regulate the technology and what its true impact might be, the Chinese might beat us out, dominating the market. This may be why the White House stressed "America First" in ireprets announcement of the new task force, and why representatives from Musk's company Tesla, a leader in AI development, were not present at the conference.

What happens now? Tech leaders at the conference were likely hoping for funding from the government to help speed AI development but that was not on offer. With the Congressional Budget Office projecting trillion-dollar annual budget deficits, that may be understandable.

But if the federal government truly wants to support AI development, it has another resource it its disposal--one that won't cost a cent. It could agree to the ongoing requests by technology companies to make more government data available for AI research. AI experts say that the true power of this new technology is driven by data, and that recent leaps forward in AI development are the direct result of the growing wealth of data scientists can use to "teach" it. Making government data available for AI research could help keep the U.S. in the forefront of AI development without breaking the budget.

Published on: May 10, 2018
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.