Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

After months of pushing China to retreat from its strategy to dominate the technologies of the future, President Trump today ordered U.S. agencies to prioritize keeping the U.S. ahead in the development and deployment of artificial intelligence.

He did not allocate specific sums of money — and it will be expensive to match Chinese spending — but told aides to tally up what it will cost to maintain the lead, and to budget it.

Trump's executive order comes amid tense brinkmanship between the U.S. and China, driven by a trade war declared by the U.S.

  • The order brings new focus to the core of U.S. unhappiness: Beijing's strategic plan "Made in China 2025" and its goal of capturing the commanding heights in AI, quantum computing, biotechnology and more.
  • The bottom line: This may be an attempt by Trump to signal deeper resolve ahead of coming new talks with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, possibly in March.

Simply signaling an all-hands push by the White House on AI is valuable, says Michael Allen, of Beacon Global Strategies and a former member of President George W. Bush’s National Security Council.

  • "This has a galvanizing effect and elevates AI as a critical national priority," Allen tells Axios.
  • "I read [the order] as a demand for the federal agencies to give the White House specifics for what steps they are going to do to make AI a priority and what resources they need to make those steps a reality," says Gregory C. Allen, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. "Overall, this [order] is great news."

The billion-dollar question is how the government's new priorities will be funded.

  • Trump set aside no new money in his executive order. When Axios asked how the initiative will be funded, a senior administration official said that money is the purview of Congress.
  • While true that Congress is in charge of appropriating funds, the White House can move existing money around, says William Carter, a technology policy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
  • "If they can find $5 billion for a border wall, they should be able to find a few billion for the foundation of our future economic growth," says Carter.

What the plan does do, however, is tee up civilian agencies to make AI investments, and encourages them to do so.

So far, U.S. funding for AI has been anemic.

  • An analysis from Bloomberg Government found that the Pentagon's R&D spending on AI has increased from $1.4 billion to about $1.9 billion between 2017 and 2019. DARPA, the Pentagon's research arm, has separately pledged $2 billion in AI funding over the next five years.
  • It's hard to put a number on the entire federal government's AI spend, says Chris Cornillie, a Bloomberg Government analyst, because "most civilian agencies don't mention AI in their 2019 budget requests." (The new executive order would keep better track of civilian agencies' AI funding.)

These numbers pale in comparison to estimates of Chinese spending on AI. Exact numbers are hard to come by, but just two Chinese cities — Shanghai and Tiajin — have committed to spending about $15 billion each.

One element of funding is building and maintaining talent superiority, and education is a pillar of Trump's executive order.

  • A key issue is whether threats to slow down immigration and make it more difficult for foreign students to attend U.S. schools will detract from U.S. competitiveness, says Elsa Kania, an adjunct senior fellow at CNAS.

Go deeper

The apocalypse scenario

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Democratic lawyers are preparing to challenge any effort by President Trump to swap electors chosen by voters with electors selected by Republican-controlled legislatures. One state of particular concern: Pennsylvania, where the GOP controls the state house.

Why it matters: Trump's refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer of power, together with a widely circulated article in The Atlantic about how bad the worst-case scenarios could get, is drawing new attention to the brutal fights that could jeopardize a final outcome.

Federal judge rules Trump administration can't end census early

Census workers outside Lincoln Center in New York. Photo: Noam Galai/Getty Images

A federal judge ruled late Thursday that the Trump administration could not end the 2020 census a month early.

Why it matters: The decision states that an early end — on Sept. 30, instead of Oct. 31 — would likely produce inaccuracies and thus impact political representation and government funding around the country.

Caitlin Owens, author of Vitals
2 hours ago - Health

Where bringing students back to school is most risky

Data: Coders Against COVID; Note: Rhode Island and Puerto Rico did not meet minimum testing thresholds for analysis. Values may not add to 100% due to rounding; Cartogram: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Schools in Southern and Midwestern states are most at risk of coronavirus transmission, according to an analysis by Coders Against COVID that uses risk indicators developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The big picture: Thankfully, schools have not yet become coronavirus hotspots, the Washington Post reported this week, and rates of infection are lower than in the surrounding communities. But that doesn't mean schools are in the clear, especially heading into winter.

Get Axios AM in your inbox

Catch up on coronavirus stories and special reports, curated by Mike Allen everyday

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!