Trump’s AI Plan Is a Good Start

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- President Donald Trump may not have much to say about artificial intelligence on his Twitter feed. But credit where it’s due: His administration has come up with a smart plan to ensure the U.S. keeps up in an increasingly crucial industry.

By any measure, AI holds immense promise. It’s likely to boost productivity, stimulate demand, encourage innovation, vastly improve consumer products, eliminate waste, and much more. In fields such as medicine or climate science, it could prove transformative. According to one estimate, it could boost global GDP by fully 14 percent by 2030.

Yet America’s traditional lead in this field shows signs of slipping. Many countries have far more comprehensive plans to support homegrown AI industries. China has likely surpassed the U.S. in AI startup funding and patent applications. Globally, Silicon Valley faces growing competition to lure ideas, investment and talented workers.

Trump’s plan, dubbed the “American AI Initiative,” is a measured response. Among other things, it directs federal agencies to invest more in artificial-intelligence R&D, share data and computer models with outside researchers, establish clear technical standards, boost workforce development, and otherwise prioritize the technology.

None of this is earth-shattering. It builds on a similar effort by Barack Obama’s administration in 2016. But from a White House frequently adrift or in turmoil, this ranks as a good-faith attempt to grapple with the challenges of a cutting-edge technology. It elevates the issue throughout the executive branch and takes some concrete steps to help American businesses. That’s progress.

The plan’s very modesty is an advantage. The White House recognizes that the private sector must take the lead, and that the federal government’s role — though necessary — should be limited. This contrasts favorably with (say) China, where the government is pumping billions of dollars directly into AI-related companies. This may advance the field somewhat, but it’s also a good way to sustain hopeless businesses, crowd out private investment, encourage cronyism, inflate bubbles, and generally make a hash of things.

That said, Trump’s plan is only a start. In the longer term, Congress needs to build on it to make sure the U.S. remains a good place for AI companies to invest and thrive. This means spending generously on basic research and education; maintaining sound infrastructure; setting clear standards; regulating sparingly; welcoming talented immigrants; and, where appropriate, leveraging the government’s role as a consumer to promote new technologies that could have public benefits.

Preparing for the potential drawbacks should also be a priority. The executive branch should do a better job of collecting data about AI — in particular, its effect on employment — and studying the ethical implications. As automation in all its forms advances, workers will need help adjusting and the social safety-net may need to be reformed. There’s also the remote possibility that AI becomes sentient and, you know, destroys humanity. That’s worth some thought.

But let that be a worry for another day. For now, it’s enough to note that on one issue, at least, the White House has shown an uncharacteristic blend of forethought and restraint.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

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