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AI executive order looms over underfunded agencies

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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Agencies across the federal government are staring down dozens of deadlines laid out in President Biden's AI executive order.

Why it matters: The agencies are already understaffed, underfunded and facing heavy regulatory burdens from previous EOs and laws in the tech and science policy space.

  • Now they have to carry out a host of new tasks and make scores of hires to make good on a highly consequential EO, determining how the U.S. government will develop and use AI at a time when the technology is rapidly advancing.

Driving the news: Biden issued an executive order on the "Safe, Secure and Trustworthy Development and Use of Artificial Intelligence" in October, instructing agencies to develop guidelines, conduct studies and engage in rulemaking.

  • Appropriators on the Hill are working on FY2024 spending bills, but chaos in the House threatens to derail negotiations.

By the numbers: The executive order places 150 requirements on federal agencies, according to a Stanford tracker.

  • Most requirements center around bolstering government AI talent, followed by those on equity and civil rights, consumer protection and immigration policy.
  • The Commerce Department, where NIST is housed, has the most responsibilities after the Executive Office of the President.

Zoom in: The National Institute of Science and Technology carries the heaviest load for the EO, industry sources told Axios.

  • That's partly because NIST has long been involved in AI, establishing the NIST AI Risk Management Framework in January 2023, laying early foundations for government and private companies.
  • But the agency's facilities are crumbling and there's a nearly $900 million maintenance backlog.
  • Sources pointed to a $1,000 fee companies must pay to join NIST's AI Safety Institute Consortium as a way the agency is trying to offset costs.

State of play: Sens. Martin Heinrich and Todd Young are asking appropriators to allocate $10 million to establish the Artificial Intelligence Safety Institute at NIST, but lawmakers and industry sources say that figure only scratches the surface of what's needed.

  • Young told Axios: "I have tempered optimism, as with all optimism around here these days, especially when it comes to an investment. But that's a modest expenditure, relatively speaking."
  • Senate Appropriations commerce, science and related agencies subcommittee Chair Jeanne Shaheen told Axios that the $10 million is "a reasonable start, especially since we're still trying to determine what we need to do with respect to AI."
  • TechNet executive vice president Carl Holshouser said the $10 million is "inadequate" and that further investment is needed to expand staff, programing and, ultimately, outpace China.

What they're saying: "Frankly, it's an indictment of the Office of Science and Technology Policy at the White House and Congress who for years have neglected the suffocation of NIST. This is now impacting them with the executive order implementation," said Federation of American Scientists associate director Divyansh Kaushik.

Agencies have been given the green light to hire more AI experts.

  • But getting Silicon Valley engineers to come work for the government is already a challenge, Chloe Autio, a tech and AI policy consultant who works with agencies and companies, told Axios.
  • The government could make this easier, said Jennifer O'Bryan, government affairs director of SPIE, a nonprofit for the optics and photonics industry.
  • "It's great that the administration is recognizing the hidden jewel that the institute is by making them core to the goals of the EO, but Congress needs to make sure they have the funding necessary to complete their mission and growing responsibilities."

Yes, but: Some in industry say the OMB's draft implementation guidance may be unnecessarily resource-intensive and could undermine the executive order.

  • Software and Information Industry Association president Chris Mohr and senior vice president Paul Lekas said in an email: "The White House should sharpen its demands on agencies and corresponding resource needs."

What's next: Lawmakers have until Feb. 2 to pass a Commerce, Science and related agencies appropriations bill before the current continuing resolution expires.

  • It's possible another CR will be passed to keep agencies at their current funding levels; Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is moving ahead with plans to vote on a short-term CR next week.
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