WASHINGTON (CN) — As lawmakers work to wrap their heads around the fast-growing world of artificial intelligence technology, some of the foremost federal officials in charge of the government’s AI programs said Thursday that time is of the essence if Washington hopes to emerge as a global leader in the field.
“Governments around the world are investing in AI capabilities as never before,” Deputy Energy Secretary David Turk told members of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. “We simply must be bolder and move faster, or risk falling behind.”
The Department of Energy, which Turk helps to lead, oversees the country’s network of national research labs, including California’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The labs have emerged as hotbeds of U.S. computing research and development: Scientists working for the Energy Department have designed and built four of the world’s ten fastest supercomputers.
This expertise puts the Energy Department in a strong position during a critical time where global efforts to develop AI systems are still in their infancy, Turk said during a Thursday hearing at which he was invited to testify.
“Advances in AI are enabling enormous progress and breakthroughs that can help address key challenges of our time,” the deputy energy secretary said. “We need to double down on the technical capabilities, the computers, the software, the data and — most importantly — the researchers to make sure that we have those breakthroughs here in the U.S.”
Rick Stevens, associate director of computing, environment and life sciences at the Illinois-based Argonne National Laboratory, concurred.
“AI in all of its forms is rapidly becoming the most important tool in the scientific and technical toolbox,” Stevens said. “I believe it’s imperative that the U.S. lead the world in the development of advanced AI systems for scientific and national security applications.”
Lawmakers have in recent months become increasingly interested in the potential — and pitfalls — of artificial intelligence. Congress is exploring ways to regulate the emerging technology, an issue that has largely been bipartisan, with policymakers from both parties calling for additional guardrails on AI tech.
At Thursday’s hearing, however, the tenor among committee members was less about protecting Americans from the dangers of artificial intelligence and more about how Washington can boost its AI research to stave off its global rivals, particularly China.
“America must accelerate our efforts to compete and defend against China on AI,” said West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, who chairs the upper chamber’s energy panel.
Manchin, a Democrat, pointed to reports that Beijing plans to spend upwards of $26 billion over the next three years building out its artificial intelligence research. The U.S., by contrast, has only spent around $3.3 billion on its own programs.
Washington also lacks a formal strategic plan for AI technology, Manchin added. China released its own strategy in 2017, which laid out the country’s research and development and infrastructure targets for artificial intelligence.
Wyoming Republican John Barrasso raised concerns that Beijing hopes to lift experts and expertise from the U.S. national labs system, pointing to July comments made by FBI officials who warned that China is targeting American businesses and government entities to steal AI research.
“China’s sustained interest in our intellectual property is a stark reminder of the intense global competition surrounding artificial intelligence,” said Barrasso, the energy committee’s ranking member. “This competition may drive advancements in the field, but we can’t overlook the threat to our economic and national security posed by the Chinese government. The Department of Energy and our national labs must take the China threat more seriously.”
As lawmakers weigh their legislative options on artificial intelligence, recent reports suggest Americans are more concerned than ever about the technology’s rapid growth.
An August poll from the Pew Research Center found that around 52% of Americans are more concerned than excited about the increased visibility of AI tools in everyday life. That figure represents a significant increase from just 38% in 2022. More than half of respondents said that artificial intelligence will hurt their ability to keep their private information secure.
In the private sector, AI companies have expressed support for federal regulations on their technology. OpenAI founder Sam Altman told lawmakers that artificial intelligence firms and Congress must work together to “mitigate the risks” of unchecked AI development.Follow @BenjaminSWeiss
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