Computing Research Policy Blog

The Computing Research Association (CRA) has been involved in shaping public policy of relevance to computing research for more than two decades. More recently the CRA Government Affairs program has enhanced its efforts to help the members of the computing research community contribute to the public debate knowledgeably and effectively.

Senate Committee Examines the “Dawn of Artificial Intelligence”


Computer scientists from industry, government and academia today told a Senate panel that artificial intelligence (AI) has passed an inflection point — a confluence of the enormous increase in the availability of data, the ability of computers to perceive the world, and the ability to search over a wide range of possibilities — that promises to spawn new waves of innovation in applications of the technology. Those applications are likely to reshape our world in beneficial, but potentially disruptive ways, panel members explained, and so the Federal government ought to ramp up its investments in fundamental research, encourage more students to pursue computing careers, and buttress efforts to evaluate the security, safety, and ethics of the technology.

The scientists presented their testimony at a hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee on Space, Science and Competitiveness. Appearing at the hearing were:

  • Eric Horvitz, head of Microsoft Research Redmond and co-Chair of the new Partnership for AI (and a former member of CRA’s Computing Community Consortium Council);
  • Andrew Moore, Dean of the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon (and member of the CRA Government Affairs Committee);
  • Greg Brockman, Cofounder and Chief Technology Officer at OpenAI;
  • Steve Chien, Senior Research Scientist in Autonomous Space Systems at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), chaired the hearing and opened by comparing the disruptive potential of AI to the Industrial Revolution, Henry Ford’s assembly line, the invention of flight, and the Internet, noting that “many believe that there may not be a single technology that will shape our world more in the next 50 years than artificial intelligence.” Cruz, echoed by other members of the subcommittee, cited concerns about whether the U.S. would continue to lead development in the area, or if competition by an increasingly capable “China, Russia, or other foreign government” would put the U.S. at a technological disadvantage, with implications for both economic competitiveness and our national security.

The panel agreed that the U.S. couldn’t afford to cede leadership in the area. But while there are enormous opportunities in AI, they noted there are also some important challenges that need continued focus. For Moore, the key problem “keeping [him] up at night” is a workforce challenge. “We need to be training a million of the nation’s high schoolers to be ready to join this industry,” Moore testified. “And we must retrain existing technologists who are not up to speed on AI.” Asked by full committee Chair John Thune (R-SD) how we win this “talent war” to keep leadership in the U.S., Moore responded that he thought it began in middle school, by encouraging more students to learn mathematics and science.

For Brockman, the challenge he noted is the need to continue focus on developing fundamental building blocks of AI. Likening the development of AI to the development of the integrated circuit, he explained that we’re at “vacuum-tube level,” but that the Federal government was well-positioned to help push innovation forward. In particular, Brockman recommended the government focus on basic research in the fields enabling AI, an increase in the use of public contests and measurements for gauging our AI capabilities (and spurring competition to improve them), and coordination of work on the security, safety and ethics of AI.

Horvitz noted the huge number of areas that stood to benefit from AI — in health care, in transportation, in education, in critical infrastructures and national defense, to name just a few — but noted other challenges to innovations there. He noted that we had to continue to focus on designing systems that complement human abilities and intellect, rather than replace them. He noted that AI systems will need more transparency in their reasoning if they’re going to be trusted by users — users will want to understand why the system is making a particular recommendation rather than trusting something that emerges from some black box. And he noted that the challenges of cyber security are heightened in the often very modular world of AI systems, especially in high-stakes, safety critical applications.

There was some discussion of the dangers of AI systems — Cruz at one point invoked SkyNet and asked if Elon Musk’s concern that we might be “summoning the demon” was justified. The panel agreed that there isn’t an imminent threat given the current state of the art — Moore explained that AI systems are at best “idiot savants” that can only be focused on very specific ranges of data. But all also agreed that now was the time to start thinking about those issues. Horvitz noted that it’s useful to really push our vision of what bad things could be possible in order thwart them. “The things we do today are really important,” Horvitz said, so a focus on ethics and security is justified. Moore noted that the academic community felt the same way and explained that ethics and responsibility are a key part of the CMU AI curriculum.

But the recurring theme of the hearing was enabling the positive waves of innovation likely to flow from AI, and the primary recommendation the committee heard many times was the importance of the Federal investment in basic research in the area. Open, fundamental research is the fuel for the innovation ecosystem, an ecosystem that’s likely to bring trillions of dollars in return on investment, and likely on a timescale shorter than we think. Members seemed particularly interested in removing barriers to innovation and the adoption of the technologies, noting that technology moves much faster than policy, and so perhaps the time to study the policies is now. Cruz noted that he thought that this was the first congressional hearing on AI, but certainly wouldn’t be the last.

Copies of the hearing charter, the Chairman’s opening statement, and witness testimony are all available at the committee website. If a video archive of the hearing becomes available, we’ll link to it here, too.

White House Announces Awardees of Presidential Medal of Freedom; Multiple Computing Pioneers Among Recipients


Yesterday, the White House announced that President Obama named 21 recipients of the 2016 Presidential Medal of Freedom. Of note to our community, the group contained a number of computing pioneers; specifically, Grace Hopper (a posthumous awardee), Bill and Melinda Gates, and Margaret H. Hamilton. The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the highest civilian award (along with the Congressional Gold Medal) that the United States bestows, and is awarded to, “any person who has made an especially meritorious contribution to (1) the security or national interests of the United States, or (2) world peace, or (3) cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”

Grace Hopper is, of course, a legend within the computer science community. As the White House press release notes, Admiral Hopper’s work, “helped make coding languages more practical and accessible, and she created the first compiler, which translates source code from one language into another.” It’s hard to underestimate the role she played in bringing computing into our society’s everyday world.

Bill and Melinda Gates’ award is more tied to their philanthropic work through their foundation. However, they have not shied away from work within the education sphere (Mr. Gates’ work on CS education is of specific note), and they have worked to, “ensure that all people—especially those with the fewest resources—have access to the opportunities they need to succeed in school and life.”

Finally, Margaret H. Hamilton, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a number of companies that she founded, is being acknowledged for her work leading the team that, “created the on-board flight software for NASA’s Apollo command modules and lunar modules.” A truly remarkable person and a pioneering computer scientist, she also coined the term “software engineering” and made many software advances that, “set the foundation for modern, ultra-reliable software design and engineering.”

It’s great to see computer scientists get such prominent recognition for their life’s work! It makes one wonder how many computer scientists will be in the next generation of national awardees.

It’s a Whole New World…Reflections on what Trump and a GOP Majority mean for Computing Research


So, Trump.President-elect Donald Trump's seal

It’s taken a little longer to write up this analysis because it’s taken us a bit longer to start wrapping our heads around what happened. It’s not that it was hard to imagine a Trump victory, but a Trump victory *and* the GOP holding Congress…that seemed pretty inconceivable based on polling and the conventional wisdom. But that’s where we stand.

As you can imagine, there’s quite a bit of fog surrounding the shape of what’s to come, but what follows is our best attempt at sussing out the current landscape and our place in it. 

How will Trump Treat Science? 

We don’t know for sure. It’s probably a safe bet that the most obvious likely difference could be in the prominence science plays in his White House. We’ve seen 8 years of nearly unprecedented prominence for science policy issues at the presidential level: a suite of presidential or national-scale science initiatives; a well-staffed, proactive Office of Science and Technology Policy; a Science Advisor with the ear of the President; an active and well-supported President’s Council for Advisors on Science and Technology. Trump hasn’t given much indication throughout his campaign that he would place the same priority on his science efforts. He has commented only a few times on science policy, and thinking about those quotes and making some assumptions about the type of folks friendly to his campaign who might be tapped to serve in science roles in his Administration could give us some indications about what we’re in for: 

  • On the plus side, from the limited evidence we have, we can guess the Trump Administration will have a fairly conventionally Conservative view of the importance of the Federal role in supporting fundamental research in the “hard” sciences, including computing. He’s on record suggesting that investments “in research and development across the broad landscape of academia” deserve some priority, even though there are increasing demands to curtail spending to balance the federal budget. He believes that scientific advances do require long term investment, and that we “must have programs such as a viable space program and institutional research that serve as incubators to innovation and the advancement of science and engineering in a number of fields.” He’s also expressed a strong interest in removing the regulatory barriers and barriers to entry for entrepreneurs and innovators. In this respect, we’ll do ok because we know there’s a strong economic/competitiveness/national security case for computing research.

  • We perhaps ought to be concerned that he would likely support efforts by the House Science Committee majority to renew their attacks on the social sciences, environmental and climate change research. It’s possible/likely that we’ll see a renewal of efforts to defund NSF’s SBE directorate and redistribute that funding to the “harder” sciences as they’ve proposed in the recent past. He’s already singled out DOE spending on climate change initiatives as a potential place for cost-cutting. It’s also possible that we’ll see renewed scrutiny of science funded by NSF and other agencies, as a way of rooting out “silly-sounding science” and other instances of waste, fraud and abuse to demonstrate good stewardship of taxpayer dollars.
  • It’s also possible that science won’t rise to his level of attention. His agenda for the start of his term is packed with controversial actions: dismantling Obamacare, building the wall/border security/immigration reform; new substantial investments in infrastructure; renegotiating trade agreements; reforming the tax code. Science might receive “benign neglect” from him for the foreseeable future, which might not be terrible.

What does Full GOP Control Mean for Science?

The consolidation of GOP power has obvious implications for appropriations and authorizations. Going forward, the GOP can’t claim that obstruction by the Dems is hindering their efforts, so we may actually see something close to regular order in the appropriations process (as opposed to a more brinksmanship-based approach, where looming deadlines force compromises that result in last-minute omnibus bills). That’s good, in that it gives us a few more opportunities each cycle to have some influence on the final shape of the legislation. But it also means that Republicans will drive the prioritizing. We do still have GOP champions for science in both the House and Senate, and much of the efforts of the science advocacy community over the next few months will be targeted at bolstering those folks to defend science agencies in the FY 17 bills, and in what’s likely to be an even more tightly-capped FY18 cycle.

Of immediate concern is the final resolution of the FY17 appropriations cycle. Prior to the election, the conventional wisdom was that congressional leaders would back an omnibus bill during the lame-duck session before the current continuing resolution expires on Dec 9th. However, it now appears that the Republican leadership would prefer to pass a CR that postpones further work on appropriations until March or April of next year, giving the new Administration time to get up to speed. Of *key* concern, especially in the FY18 appropriations cycle which gets underway in February, is the desire of the GOP and Trump to relax the budget caps currently in place on defense spending. These are the caps backed by the sequester established by the 2011 Budget Control Act. The GOP argues that these caps are now unrealistic and are hurting our military and would like to see defense spending ramped up by some percentage. However, the GOP doesn’t want to increase overall spending to pay for the defense increase, and so any increase in defense discretionary spending would need to be offset by cuts to non-defense discretionary spending — a pot of money which includes agencies like NSF, NIST, NOAA, NASA, DOE and NIH. We will be reaching out to our champions and working with our coalition partners in the advocacy community to make the case that investments in research in these non-defense accounts ought to be prioritized, not cut.

On the authorizations side, it’s not clear that the election has changed the calculus very much between the Senate and the House concerning their differences on things like the America COMPETES reauthorization. The Senate is still seen as the bulwark against the more contentious provisions coming out of the House, including resurrected provisions defunding SBE or placing further review and oversight over NSF’s grant-making process.

So for those worried about the impact of a Trump administration on computing research policy, it’s not exactly time to get on the ledge. There’s a lot of inertia in federal agencies; the ship of state rarely turns on a dime. There may be a whole host of reasons for worry about the new administration, but we think we’re in a pretty good position to contend with this whole new world in science policy. 

As the fog continues to lift on the final shape of a Trump science administration, we’ll have all the details here.

K-12 CS Framework Announced; CRA Endorses!


Back in January the Computer Science Teacher Association (CSTA), the Association of Computer Machinery (ACM), and Code.org announced an initiative to develop a K-12 Computer Science Framework for use throughout the country’s education system. The plan was to develop a high level framework, not education standards, that states and school districts could use to create individual CS curriculums for their needs and wants. On Monday, the group, which now includes Cyber Innovation Center and the National Math and Science Initiative, announced that they had completed their work and made the framework public.

The K-12 CS Framework, “represents a vision in which all students engage in the concepts and practices of computer science.” The idea driving the development of this initiative is not to cover everything that a student can learn in a CS classroom, but, to help students, “develop a foundation of computer science knowledge and learn new approaches to problem solving that harness the power of computational thinking to become both users and creators of computing technology.” Given that both parents and students have been clamoring for more CS classes in their schools, and that the question of “What is computer science?” has not been well defined, this framework is a much welcomed endeavor. In fact, CRA is one of many organizations and companies to endorse the K-12 CS Framework.

Readers can download the framework, read the concepts and practices and find more information on the K-12 CS Framework’s webpage.

Nearly 40 CEOs of American Companies Call for Support of Federal Research


In an advertisement that ran in the New York Times on September 26, and in Friday’s Wall Street Journal, 39 CEOs and top executives of American companies argued that federally supported scientific research is, “an investment in our prosperity, security, and well-being.”

The ad points out that without federally supported research, we would not have such things as smart phones, the internet, or microprocessors, to name but a few of the examples cited. Some of the companies whose leaders signed the advertisement are members of the Task Force on American Innovation, a coalition which CRA is a member. The Task Force is a coalition of science organizations, American colleges and universities, and high-tech companies, which supports federally-funded scientific research and promote its benefits to America’s economy, security, and quality of life. The advertisement has the full list of signatories, some of which are well known to our community, such as Norm Augustine, former CEO of Lockheed Martin, and Meg Whitman, President and CEO of Hewlett Packard Enterprises.

The ad was sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center.

Government Shutdown Averted; Federal Budget on Autopilot till Dec 9


First, the good news: the government won’t have to shut down on Saturday, as Congressional leaders have agreed to a continuing resolution (CR) through December 9. As our regular readers will remember, the Fiscal Year 2016 budget year runs from October 1 2015 to September 30 2016 and if Congress has not passed a budget or a CR by this Saturday October 1, federal agencies must stop operations. The last government shutdown happened back in 2013 but we’ve been dealing with the potential of one every year since. The agreed to CR puts funding for federal agencies generally, and science research accounts specifically, on autopilot at Fiscal Year 2016 levels.

Now, the bad news: this in no way clears up how Fiscal Year 2017 (the budget that will technically start on Saturday) will end up looking. First, no Federal agencies will get any new money until a final budget is determined. Secondly, it doesn’t guarantee a finished budget in December. All eyes are now on how the election unfolds in November: if Democrats retake the Senate and/or the House, Congressional Republicans may want to tackle a budget now while they are in power. However, if Republicans retain either, or both, chambers, and potentially retake the White House, they may want to punt the budget to next year when they are in a stronger position. Given the added complications of the Freedom Caucus, who want major cuts in Federal spending and who have been a continuing problem for Republican Congressional leaders, only time will tell what happens.

Stay tuned, as we will have the latest developments for the Fiscal Year 2017 on our blog.

Congressional Innovation Fellowships Accepting Applications for 2017 Class


Do you have expertise in technological issues? Are you interested in how legislation impacts tech issues? There’s a Congressional fellowship for you! Tech Congress, an organization that, “brings tech talent, ideas and training to Congress…to build a practical and pragmatic understanding of Washington within the tech community,” is accepting applications for its 2017 class of Congressional Innovation Fellows.

The Congressional Innovation Fellowship is a program to inject, “desperately needed technological expertise into the Legislative Branch.” To that end, Tech Congress provides benefits and assistance in placement in a Congressional personal or committee office. The program is geared for, “early – mid career technology professionals to get hands on experience working in Congress and learn about the policymaking process.”

Tech Congress’ website has detailed information on what they’re looking for in applicants. If you’re interested in the intersection of public policy and technology, this is a great opportunity to pursue.

Trump Provides Science Policy Views


Back in July, we got a good sense of how Hillary Clinton would approach science and technology policy in her presidency when her campaign released her Technology and Innovation agenda, which we covered here. At the time, there wasn’t much information about how a President Trump would approach similar issues. Today, the folks behind ScienceDebate.org have released the answers provided by Clinton and Trump, along with Green Party candidate Jill Stein, to 20 questions about science policy issues facing the country. While Clinton’s answers are consistent with those she outlined in her Tech and Innovation agenda, the answers Trump provided give us a first real glimpse at the candidate’s views on things like innovation policy and the importance of the federal investment in fundamental research. I thought I’d highlight two question responses in particular, but invite you to read the whole 20 questions.

On what policies should be at the forefront of ensuring the U.S. continues to lead in innovation:

Trump: Innovation has always been one of the great by-products of free market systems.  Entrepreneurs have always found entries into markets by giving consumers more options for the products they desire.  The government should do all it can to reduce barriers to entry into markets and should work at creating a business environment where fair trade is as important as free trade.  Similarly, the federal government should encourage innovation in the areas of space exploration and investment in research and development across the broad landscape of academia.  Though there are increasing demands to curtail spending and to balance the federal budget, we must make the commitment to invest in science, engineering, healthcare and other areas that will make the lives of Americans better, safer and more prosperous.

And on science and engineering priorities in a budget restricted climate:

Trump: The premise of this question is exactly correct—scientific advances do require long term investment.  This is why we must have programs such as a viable space program and institutional research that serve as incubators to innovation and the advancement of science and engineering in a number of fields.  We should also bring together stakeholders and examine what the priorities ought to be for the nation.  Conservation of resources and finding ways to feed the world beg our strong commitment as do dedicated investment in making the world a healthier place.  The nation is best served by a President and administration that have a vision for a greater, better America.

So the good news from our vantage point is that both the major party candidates continue to believe that an important part of supporting American innovation is to continue federal investment in research and development, even if their level of specificity varies. There’s a measure of relief in seeing Trump’s responses here as some of his early comments on the campaign trail cast some doubt on whether he believed the federal investment was worthwhile when there were other issues facing the nation (he once replied when asked about support for NASA, that while he was a fan, “we’ve got bigger problems, you understand that? We have to fix our potholes. You know we don’t exactly have a lot of money.”) But these particular responses are not markedly different from a traditional GOP perspective on federal investment in science — an emphasis on removing regulatory barriers to innovation and a focus of the government’s role supporting fundamental research. We know how to make that case for computing research.

 

Rice to Host Conference on Humans, Machines, and the Future of Work


Screenshot 2016-08-04 16.54.53Those who attended this year’s CRA Snowbird conference may have heard Moshe Vardi’s provocative panel session on Humans, Machines, and the Future of Work, discussing the potential impact of computing technologies on employment and the nature of work over the coming years. Vardi makes a compelling case that the computing research community ought to be concerned with the impact its innovations will have on society, both positive and negative. To that end, Vardi has led an effort to pull together some of the leading thinkers from the computing, economics, and social science communities to consider the issue in Houston in December. The De Lange Conference on Humans, Machines, and the Future of Work will be held December 5-6, 2016, at Rice University. Here’s an announcement from the organizers (CRA is a co-sponsor).

The conference will focus on issues created by the impact of information technology on labor markets over the next 25 years, addressing questions such as:

  • What advances in artificial intelligence, robotics and automation are expected over the next 25 years?
  • What will be the impact of these advances on job creation, job destruction and wages in the labor market?
  • What skills are required for the job market of the future?
  • Can education prepare workers for that job market?
  • What educational changes are needed?
  • What economic and social policies are required to integrate people who are left out of future labor markets?
  • How can we preserve and increase social mobility in such an environment?

CALL FOR POSTERS DEALINE IS SEPTEMBER 5TH, 2016!!

REGISTRATION AND ADDITIONAL INFORMATION, VISIT delange.rice.edu.

Renowned Speakers and Panelists:

 Diane Bailey
Associate Professor, School of Information
The University of Texas at Austin

Guruduth Banavar
Vice President, Cognitive Computing
IBM Research

John Seely Brown
Co-chairman Deloitte’s Center for the Edge; Advisor to the Provost USC
Deloitte

Daniel Castro
Vice President,
Information Technology and Innovation Foundation

Stuart Elliott
Directorate for Education and Skills
OECD

Richard Freeman
Professor of Economics
Harvard University

Eszter Hargittai
Delaney Family Professor Affiliation
Communication Studies Department, Northwestern University

John Leslie King
W.W. Bishop Professor of Information
University of Michigan School of Information

Vijay Kumar
Nemirovsky Family Dean, School of Engineering and Applied Science
University of Pennsylvania

John Markoff
Reporter
New York Times

Lawrence Mishel
President
Economic Policy Institute

Joel Mokyr
Robert H. Strotz Professor of Arts and Sciences and Professor of Economics and History at Northwestern University and Sackler Professor, (by spec. appnt.) Eitan Berglas School of
Economics at Tel Aviv University

David Nordfors
Co-Founder and Co-Chair
I4j Innovation for Jobs

Debra Satz
Marta Sutton Weeks Professor of Ethics in Society, Professor of Philosophy, Senior Associate Dean for the Humanities and Arts, J. Frederick and Elisabeth Brewer Weintz University Fellow in Undergraduate Education
Stanford University

Manuela Veloso
Herbert A. Simon University Professor School of Computer Science
Carnegie Mellon University

Judy Wajcman
Anthony Giddens Professor of Sociology
The London School of Economics

For more information, see delange.rice.edu.

Clinton Unveils New Tech and Innovation Agenda


[Editor’s Note: This post was written by CRA’s new Tisdale Policy Fellow for Summer 2016, Satoe Sakuma.]

On June 28th, Secretary Hillary Clinton unveiled her “Tech and Innovation Agenda” which outlines how her administration will approach technology. The presumptive Democratic nominee is positioning herself as a strong supporter of the advancement and expansion of technology through education, entrepreneurship, and infrastructure. This agenda in many ways continues the Obama Administration’s efforts to expand federally supported research efforts and expand their impact on the nation’s economic ecosystem.

Of most importance to our community is her promoting of science and technology R&D. In the agenda she recognizes “the benefits of government investment in research and development (R&D) are profound and irrefutable” and plans to increase research budgets for the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, and DARPA. The agenda goes on to say that the country should make certain to remain international leaders in High Performance Computing, green energy, and machine learning. She also plans to create an easier, more efficient means of technology transfer, which is the movement of research and breakthroughs from government laboratories to industry for economic benefit and job creation.

Another section of Secretary Clinton’s agenda focuses on computer science education. Voicing her support for, and plans to expand, the Obama Administration’s “Computer Science for All” initiative. Clinton states that she will launch the next generation of Investing in Innovation grants and double the investment in pre-existing programs. She also plans on training 50,000 new CS teachers while assisting current teachers in gaining additional training to accommodate the projected growth. In order to support the expansion of CS faculty, Clinton promises to “improve CS Education certification pathways, and to broaden ongoing learning opportunities for CS teachers so they can remain up to date on the cutting edge developments in the field.” Addressing the issue of diversity in the Tech Workforce, Clinton promises to create a $25 billion fund for colleges with minority students and invest $20 billion to build a pathway for underrepresented youth through “models like linked learning, P-Tech, apprenticeships, and Career Academies.”

Additionally, to encourage advancement in technology, Secretary Clinton looks to “ensure the patent system continues to reward innovators” and deploy 5G technology to enable the Internet of Things (IoT) development. The idea being that IoT has tremendous potential to create jobs and improve the quality of people’s lives, and having the federal government invest in infrastructure now can speed the arrival of those benefits. To close the Digital Divide, Clinton states that “by 2020, 100 percent of households in America will have the option of affordable broadband that delivers speeds sufficient to meet families’ needs.”

A few questions and concerns were not addressed. Clinton outlines launching various grant programs, but does not mention how the new educational programs will be funded. Another possible seed for tension is her support for funding “commercialization capacity building and accelerator grants, and expand[ing] proven models like the Regional Innovation Program and the NSF I-Corps program,” by taking a small portion of federal research budget, which has been consistently flat funded or even reduced in recent years. Lastly, due to her unclear stance of “support[ing] efforts such as the U.S.-EU Privacy Shield to find alignment in national data privacy laws and protect data movement across borders. And… [to] promote the free flow of information in international fora,” there is likely to be pushback concerning the agenda’s position on privacy laws and encryption.

Secretary Clinton’s tech agenda is the first to be released by either candidate. We will provide an update regarding Donald Trump’s tech agenda once it is released.


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