Explainer: The executive order on Artificial Intelligence

February 15, 2019

On Monday, President Trump signed an executive order on “maintaining American leadership in artificial intelligence.” Here is what you should know about the order:

What is an executive order, and what does it do?

An executive order is an official document, signed by the president, used to manage the federal government. Assuming they are limited to the scope of the executive action allowed by a president, executive orders have the power of federal law. While a president cannot directly create a new law or sign an executive order that violates existing law, he or she can use an executive order to specify how laws will be carried out or direct how a federal agency will carry out a task.

What is artificial intelligence?

‘Artificial Intelligence’ (AI) is a general term that refers to machines that exhibits behavior or performs tasks that are characteristic of human intelligence, such as learning, planning, problem solving, recognizing objects, or understanding languages.  

The two general categories of AI are general and narrow. General AI—which does not currently exist—is the capability of a machine to perform many or all of the intellectual tasks a human can do. Narrow AI is the capability of a machine to perform some intellectual tasks a human can do using such processes as neural networks, machine learning, or deep learning.

One of the most common types of AI involves “machine learning,” the science of getting computers to learn and act like humans do, and improve their learning over time in autonomous fashion, by feeding them data and information in the form of observations and real-world interactions. (While all machine learning is AI, not all AI involves machine learning.) Self-driving cars are an example of using machine learning to teach machines how to perform complex functions that once required the direct applications of human intelligence. 

What is the reason for the executive order?

“Continued American leadership in AI is of paramount importance to maintaining the economic and national security of the United States and to shaping the global evolution of AI in a manner consistent with our Nation’s values, policies, and priorities,” notes the executive order. While the executive order does not mention any other countries by name, the concern is that China will overtake the U.S. as the leader in AI research and applications. The U.S. is one of about a dozen nations—including China, France, and South Korea—that have national AI strategies.

AI is expected to have a substantial impact on economic growth over the next decade. Some projections estimate that AI will lead to $15.7 trillion increase global gross domestic product (GDP), with $7 trillion predicted to go to China and $3.7 trillion to all of North America.

China wants to be the global leader in AI by 2030. Currently, China dominates in the area of AI funding. Last year, 48 per cent of total funding of AI startups globally came from China, compared to 38 percent funded by the U.S., and 13 percent by the rest of the world. China also leads the world in academic papers, academic citations, and patents related to AI. 

A key area the U.S. still leads in is AI talent. By the end of 2017, China had amassed an AI talent pool of 18,232 people, accounting for 8.9 percent of the world’s total talent, while the U.S. share was 13.9 percent.

What changes are made by this executive order?

The executive order directs all federal agencies to “pursue six strategic objectives in furtherance of both promoting and protecting American advancements in AI.” The six objectives are:

(1) Promote sustained investment in research and development (R&D) related to AI.

(2) Enhance access to high-quality and fully traceable Federal data, models, and computing resources to increase the value of such resources for AI R&D.

(3) Reduce barriers to the use of AI technologies to promote their innovative application while protecting American technology, economic and national security, civil liberties, privacy, and values.

(4) Ensure that technical standards minimize vulnerability to attacks from malicious actors and reflect Federal priorities for innovation, public trust, and public confidence.

(5) Train the next generation of American AI researchers and users.

(6) Develop and implement an action plan to protect the advantage of the United States in AI and technology critical to United States economic and national security interests against strategic competitors and foreign adversaries.

The executive order requires an action plan submitted to the President within 120 days, but does not explain or outline how these objectives will be implemented or how much AI funding will be provided to achieve these goals.

Why should Christians care about this issue?

In an article for ERLC published last year,  Jason Thacker explained the significance of artificial intelligence:

While a complete AI takeover of society is not imminent, it is very likely that within the next 20-50 years we will see society completely revolutionized by these systems. From the workforce to healthcare and art, the influence of AI is growing at an exponential rate. The church must be proactive in learning about Artificial Intelligence, as well as participating in the larger discussion about the future of AI research and development.

[ . . . ]

Today, instead of being reactive to technological trends, we should seek to be proactive in these discussions, proclaiming that human dignity is not based on what we do but on who we are as created in the image of God. AI systems and machines might one day outperform us in every type of task and maybe even replace us in the workplace, but they will never have a soul and will never be able overtake their creators in terms of dignity and worth.

AI is always learning, the question is, how will we respond?

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is the author of The Life and Faith Field Guide for Parents, the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible, and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator. He also serves as an executive pastor at the McLean Bible Church Arlington location in Arlington, Virginia. Read More