A look back on the Executive Branch’s Artificial Intelligence efforts

By , Vincent C. Capati

As the Executive Branch transitions, it’s a fair time to reflect on the previous administration’s focused efforts on advancing artificial intelligence, [1] including how those initiatives could evolve under the present administration. As the new administration takes hold of these issues, we will continue to provide updates identifying opportunities and challenges in AI regulation and commercialization. [2]

Highlighted below are some key milestones and ongoing efforts:

Executive Actions

In February 2019, Executive Order 13859 established the American AI Initiative, which identified the following key areas: increasing AI research investment, unleashing federal AI computing and data resources, setting AI technical standards, building America’s AI workforce, and engaging with international allies. These were later codified in the National AI Initiative Act of 2020 (as part of the National Defense Authorization Act, under Division E), and summarized in a previous AI blog entry.

Earlier this month, the White House established the National Artificial Intelligence Initiative Office pursuant to the National Artificial Intelligence Initiative Act of 2020. This “[o]ffice is charged with overseeing and implementing the United States national AI strategy and will serve as the central hub for [f]ederal coordination and collaboration in AI research and policymaking across the government, as well as with private sector, academia, and other stakeholders.” Id. The national AI strategies are:

  • Strategy 1: Make long-term investments in AI research.
  • Strategy 2: Develop effective methods for human-AI collaboration.
  • Strategy 3: Understand and address the ethical, legal, and societal implications of AI.
  • Strategy 4: Ensure the safety and security of AI systems.
  • Strategy 5: Develop shared public datasets and environments for AI training and testing.
  • Strategy 6: Measure and evaluate AI technologies through benchmarks and standards.
  • Strategy 7: Better understand the national AI R&D workforce needs.
  • Strategy 8: Expand public-private partnerships in AI to accelerate advances in AI.

The implementation status and achieved milestones of the national AI strategy are reflected in the following publications: The National Artificial Intelligence Research and Development Strategic Plan: 2019 Update; American Artificial Intelligence Initiative: Year One Annual. Report; U.S. Leadership in AI: A Plan for Federal Engagement in Developing Technical Standards and Related Tools; The Networking & Information Technology Research & Development Program: Supplement to the President’s FY2020 Budget; and Charter of the Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence.

American Innovation

The National Artificial Intelligence Research and Development Strategic Plan: 2019 Update identifies priority areas for federal investments—continued long-term investments in AI; effective methods for human-AI collaboration; understanding and addressing the ethical, legal, and societal implications for AI; ensuring the safety and security of AI; developing shared public datasets and environments for AI training and testing; measuring and evaluating AI technologies through standards and benchmarks; better understanding the National AI R&D workforce needs; and expanding public-private partnerships to

A first round of federal investments in AI R&D focused on seven National Science Foundation AI Research Institutes:

  • NSF AI Institute for Research on Trustworthy AI in Weather, Climate, and Coastal Oceanography (primarily at the University of Oklahoma, Norman Campus)
  • USDA-NIFA AI Institute for Next Generation Food Systems (primarily at the University of California, Davis)
  • NSF AI Institute of Foundations of Machine Learning (primarily at the University of Texas at Austin)
  • NSF AI Institute for Student-AI Teaming (primarily at the University of Colorado, Boulder)
  • USDA-NIFA AI Institute for Future Agricultural Resilience, Management, and Sustainability (primarily at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)
  • Molecule Maker Lab Institute: NSF AI Institute for Molecular Discovery, Synthetic Strategy, and Manufacturing
  • NSF AI Institute for Artificial Intelligence and Fundamental Interactions

A second round of federal investments (expected this summer 2021) would partner federal agencies with the private sector—Accenture, Amazon, Google, and Intel—to support institutes in eight areas:

  • Human-AI Interaction and Collaboration
  • Advances in Optimization
  • AI and Advanced Cyberinfrastructure
  • Advances in AI and Computer and Network Systems
  • Dynamic Systems
  • AI-Augmented Learning
  • AI to Advance Biology
  • AI-Driven Innovation in Agriculture and the Food System

Further, the Department of Energy, National Science Foundation, and National Aeronautics and Space Administration have each developed (or are currently developing) high-performance computing infrastructure that supports AI research. For example, DOE expects to debut this year the Frontier supercomputer, which would be the world’s most powerful computer. DOE has already introduced the Summit supercomputer, which provides computing power for artificial intelligence, energy, and advanced materials. NSF has started building the Frontera supercomputer, a system with the highest scale, throughput, and data analysis capabilities ever deployed on a university campus. And NASA is augmenting their Pleiades supercomputer to specifically accommodate machine learning and artificial intelligence workloads.

American Industries

The previous administration also clarified regulations, sought industry input, and posed challenges to facilitate the further development and adoption of AI in various sectors.

Transportation. The Department of Transportation published its autonomous vehicles guidance, detailing ten principles to protect users and communities, to promote efficient markets, and to facilitate coordinated efforts.

Health. The Food and Drug Administration published an action to facilitate development and approval of artificial intelligence/machine learning-based software as a medical device. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services launched the Artificial Intelligence Health Outcomes Challenge to encourage progress in AI for health and health care and to accelerate development of real-world applications, including predicting unplanned hospital and skilled nursing facility admissions and adverse events. The National Institutes of Health has engaged both academia and private industry for opportunities and strategies to harness artificial intelligence and machine learning in research.

Manufacturing. The National Strategic Plan on Advanced Manufacturing was unveiled and focuses on defending the economy, expanding manufacturing employment, and ensuring a strong manufacturing and defense industrial base and a resilient supply chain.

Agriculture. The National Institute of Food and Agriculture launched the Food and Agriculture Cyberinformatics and Tools to accelerate and expand on AI-related programs, including robotic solutions that utilize AI technologies to assist in pollination, weeding, pesticide applications, and fruit harvesting; AI algorithms that assist in identifying plant, animal, and tree species that contribute to pest control and ecosystem management; and adaptive groundwater and watershed models to maintain resilience of agricultural systems.

National Security & Defense. The National Security Strategy was unveiled and calls on America to lead in research, technology, invention, and innovation in emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence. The Department of Defense then established the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center to deliver new AI-enabled capabilities to DoD end users and to develop a common foundation of shared data, reusable tools, frameworks, libraries, and standards that are essential for scaling the impact of AI across DoD. And the DOD AI Strategy outlines five key goals: delivering AI-enabled capabilities for key missions; partnering with leading private sector technology companies, academia, and global allies; cultivating a leading AI workforce; and leading in military ethics and AI safety.

Clarified Regulations. The Department of Health and Human Services successfully piloted an AI program to “clean up” its regulations, leading to similar programs across federal agencies. Seeing successful adoption of AI in government, the General Service Administration then launched the Centers of Excellence and AI Community of Practice to further accelerate the incorporation and innovation of AI, generally, in


There has been considerable momentum to advance artificial intelligence in government and in the private sector, including by providing funding, establishing institutes and centers, outlining critical areas of focus, clarifying regulations, and seeking industry comments. Given the foundational work and momentum, we could expect the new administration to further develop many of the highlighted initiatives above.

  1. Additional information available at Artificial Intelligence for the American People.
  2. In August 2020, we surveyed Congress’ notable artificial intelligence bills and by popular request, we will update our Artificial Intelligence bills survey once the 117th United States Congress settles into its agenda.
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Daniel J. Schwartz


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Vincent C. Capati


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