National Artificial Intelligence Initiative Act Inches Closer to Passage

UPDATE (1/5/21): On New Year’s Day, and in one of it’s last acts, the 116th Congress overrode President Trump’s veto and passed the National Defense Authorization Act into law. That means the National Artificial Intelligence Act is law.

Original post: Last week the long awaited conferenced National Defense Authorization Act (or NDAA; the defense policy bill) was publicly released. Regular readers will recall that earlier in the year that the House Science Committee’s National Artificial Intelligence Initiative Act (HR 6216) was included in the House version of the NDAA. At that time, there was no equivalent in the Senate NDAA and it was unclear if it would survive the conference negotiations. Fortunately, the AI Initiative Act was included in the conference agreement released last week.

The bill is not significantly different than the version passed by the House in July, but there are some changes. The federal agencies and departments that are involved in the Initiative were broadened, but in a way that makes sense, given that the bill crosses jurisdictional boundaries (think the Department of Defense was insert in place of DARPA and the Department of Commerce was included instead of just NIST). Plus, the agencies can be added at this stage without much difficulty. Additionally, language that involved the creation of “voluntary standards” was removed. We’re not sure why this occurred; our running theory is that it could mean the Senate Commerce Committee has an AI standards bill in mind for the future. Finally, the language requiring PIs to include an ethics statement in their proposals seems to be less prescriptive in this version, potentially giving agencies more say in what will need to be included.

The good news is that the authorized funding levels are as they were in the original Science Committee bill, including all five years for each of the three agencies’ institutes. The bill authorizes nearly $5 billion in funding for AI research at NSF over the next five years ($4.796 billion), $1.15 billion at the Department of Energy, and $390 million at NIST. Also, there’s a new section in the NIST Institutes title that includes $10 million for a NOAA institute; it only has one year of funding authorized though. Also, much of the wording within the institute sections are not significantly different than what passed in the House NDAA (though the NIST section got a couple of additions, including the NOAA section).

Unfortunately, it is not a definite that this bill will become law. Outgoing President Trump has threatened to veto the NDAA unless it includes repeal of the Section 230 protections for internet providers and online companies. This is in addition to his veto threat from the summer over stipulations about renaming military bases (those have also survived the conference negotiations). Both chambers seem to have no stomach for attaching repeal of Section 230 protections in this piece of must pass legislation, and it appears Congress will test Trump’s threat. Seeing as both the House and Senate versions passed their chambers with large majorities, this veto appears doomed to be overridden. But stranger things have happened this year. The House is expected to vote in the next day or two, as the bill must pass this year.

Let’s hope this gets over the goal posts! If so, it will cap over two years of work with CCC and the community to get the AI Research Roadmap written and then translated into legislation and policy. We’ll keep watching what happens and report when we know more, so please check back.

National Artificial Intelligence Initiative Act Inches Closer to Passage