President Obama: the Founder of the AI Revolution

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If President Roosevelt is remembered for starting the Manhattan Project, President John F. Kennedy for setting the goal to put a human on the moon, Clinton/Gore team for launching the Internet revolution, should President Obama be known as the founder of the Artificial Intelligence (AI) Revolution? We believe the answer to that question is a resounding “yes”.

A less known fact about the Obama Administration is the level of guidance, support, encouragement, and focus it has provided in the growth of technology in general and artificial intelligence in particular. In fact, in some ways, the only failure that can be pointed out is that the administration has been too modest in promoting its role in driving and creating the recent artificial technology revolution.

Creating Vision on a Sinking Ship

When President Obama took office, America was engulfed in an unprecedented economic crisis. Not since the Great Depression, the situation had become so precarious. The entire financial sector, the backbone of the economic infrastructure of a nation, was in turmoil.

The amazing part of the technology centric transformation is not just what has been achieved but also when it all began. It is hard for administrations to focus on ambitious and revolutionary projects during times of great turmoil. During that period of tremendous economic pressure (the aftermath of the Great Recession), President Obama demonstrated great leadership by thinking long-term, driving a revolutionary change, and doing it very responsibly.

The Vision Came Early

Early on in their term, Clinton/Gore team set the vision for the Internet (information superhighway). Not that different from that timely vision-setting, as early as in 2009 President Obama set the agenda for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). Since then the Obama Administration has undertaken several initiatives to advance science and technology. A June 2016 White House report identified 100 such initiatives.1

Government Transparency became Technology Centric

Under the Obama Administration, government transparency found a new and modern focus.  As Bass describes:

In his first full day in office, President Obama said: “All agencies should adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure… The presumption of disclosure also means that agencies should take affirmative steps to make information public. They should not wait for specific requests from the public. All agencies should use modern technology to inform citizens about what is known and done by their Government. Disclosure should be timely.” (Bass, 2015)

And Bass also pointed out that President Obama’s above commitment and its implementation “created a 180-degree shift from the Bush administration’s policy on transparency.” This implies that the Obama policy and strategy were not simply the continuation of leftover policies from the previous administration. It was original, visionary, and well thought-out.

In that regard, Bertot points out that “Even before being elected, the Obama administration made a priority of the use of social media technologies” and that “the Obama administration has been a major proponent of the idea of mashups and open government data”. (Bertot et al., 2012)

Then Came the Mini Revolution: Big Data

The Obama Administration was greatly in tune with the information technology sector. It noticed the big data change early on and took a front seat leadership position on it. Many times administrations are so busy or disinterested that they miss out on important developments. But President Obama’s Administration was so much on top of the technology transformation that it not only picked up on the major developments, it provided vision-setting assistance and helped develop the agenda for the entire field.

On March 29th, 2012 White House launched its Big Data initiative. Instead of ignoring the massive opportunity or doing it half-heartedly or to provide superficial support, the administration became fully engaged and issued a call to academia and industry: “We also want to challenge industry, research universities, and non-profits to join with the Administration to make the most of the opportunities created by Big Data.  Clearly, the government can’t do this on its own.  We need what the President calls an “all hands on deck” effort.”2

A year later the administration announced “As we enter the second year of the Big Data Initiative, the Obama Administration is encouraging multiple stakeholders, including federal agencies, private industry, academia, state and local government, non-profits, and foundations to develop and participate in Big Data initiatives across the country.  Of particular interest are partnerships designed to advance core Big Data technologies; harness the power of Big Data to advance national goals such as economic growth, education, health, and clean energy; use competitions and challenges; and foster regional innovation.”3

We observe a call for cross-sector, cross-vertical, and multidisciplinary collaboration. This shows that the administration operated with a clear strategic plan that orchestrated not just “what” needs to get done but also “how”.

Followed by the Major Revolution: The Powerful (Permanent) Rise of AI

Since the 1960’s artificial intelligence has had many “rises” which were followed by rapid declines (the periods of decline are known as the winters of AI). The recent rise is however different and there is greater consensus among experts that the winters of Artificial Intelligence have finally ended and there will not be another winter again. We agree. Anyone who feels that artificial intelligence will die down, return back to the trenches, and retreat has not looked at the actual applications, the developments in the field, the investment, and the fact that the advances in mathematics and computer science have now placed AI on an irreversible path.

When McKinsey interviewed top researchers in the field, the consulting firm determined:4 ”The exact moment when computers got better than people at human tasks arrived in 2011, according to data scientist Jeremy Howard…”

And if 2011 was the year when the breakthrough happened and AI finally found its zenith, it is safe to say that the Artificial Intelligence Revolution materialized under the leadership of President Obama.

Once again, as technology advanced, the Obama Administration demonstrated excellent grasp of the developments and provided solid leadership. On July 29th, 2015 President Obama issued an executive order to create a National Computing Strategic Initiative. In the executive order, President Obama stated:

“In order to maximize the benefits of HPC [high-performance computing] for economic competitiveness and scientific discovery, the United States Government must create a coordinated Federal strategy in HPC research, development, and deployment.  Investment in HPC has contributed substantially to national economic prosperity and rapidly accelerated scientific discovery.  Creating and deploying technology at the leading edge is vital to advancing my Administration’s priorities and spurring innovation.  Accordingly, this order establishes the National Strategic Computing Initiative (NSCI).  The NSCI is a whole-of-government effort designed to create a cohesive, multi-agency strategic vision and Federal investment strategy, executed in collaboration with industry and academia, to maximize the benefits of HPC for the United States.”5

The beauty of the quoted paragraph, in terms of providing great leadership, is that it sets the vision, offers the value proposition (why do it), recognizes that a funding strategy is important, inspires the nation, gives confidence by showcasing past successes, leverages prior history of accomplishment, and most importantly calls for collaboration across government, academia, and industry.

Between May and July of 2016 White House organized various conferences on artificial intelligence.

The results are powerful. More than $2.4 Billion poured into artificial intelligence in 2015 and $1.5 billion in the first half of 20166. Deep Learning based algorithms are advancing. Since technology centric revolutionary developments require an interdependent nexus of capabilities, innovations and advancements in data science and hardware are stimulating the advancement.

But Not Just the Hype: Responsibility

What we find extremely impressive is that the Obama Administration has the moral courage to challenge its own policies. Governments tend to market their agendas and ignore the debate on broader social, economic, and political consequences. For example, questions such as how did the rise of the Internet contribute to the manufacturing job loss in the United States, the transformation of social structures and family values, the Great Recession, and the rise of global terrorism – were only raised and studied after the Internet had matured and the events had happened. Another example will be the broader social, economic, and political consequences of the international and domestic policy responses to the September 11th attacks. In the fervor of driving their agendas, governments often ignore contradictory views or perilous consequences of their policies.

In President Obama’s case however, both big data and artificial intelligence initiatives were approached extremely responsibly.

For big data, White House issued a report titled Big Data: A Report on Algorithmic Systems, Opportunity, and Civil Rights which highlighted some of the perils and problems (social, economic, and other issues) of the technology.7

For artificial intelligence, White House organized a series of conferences between May and July of 2016. One of the conferences focused on the economic and social impact of artificial intelligence. In other words, instead of making the rise of the technology and its associated transformation a problem for the next administration, the Obama administration is identifying the challenges and perils so that we can move into the revolution with our eyes wide open.

So What is President Obama’s Legacy?

In the last seven years the world has now moved into a never-seen-before scientific frontier. The change is so enormous and revolutionary that it will redefine the life on this planet. In some ways, for the first time ever, we will be sharing the planet with another intelligent species – a creation of our own intelligence. Within us, we have the potential to advance and use this technology to make this world better for all humans – or to use it to create immense destruction. We can advance and use the technology to enhance life and solve some of our greatest challenges (e.g. cancer, climate change) or we can use it to create death and devastation. We shape the tomorrow today.

For providing unprecedented leadership in advancing the big data and artificial intelligence technologies, for creating the opportunity for a great future for human civilization, for making sure that the perils are understood and addressed before it is too late, and for advancing science and technology during extremely challenging times for our country, we nominate President Obama as the Founder of the Artificial Intelligence Revolution. Wherever this revolution takes us, we will find out in two or three decades, but it will always be remembered that it was in the time period between 2009-2016 when the winter of Artificial Intelligence ended permanently and the revolution began.

Note:

We are not affiliated with any political party. Our position on this issue is nonpolitical and is simply based upon our above analysis.

References:

  1. IMPACT REPORT: 100 Examples of President Obama’s Leadership in Science, Technology, and Innovation
  2. Big Data is a Big Deal
  3. Unleashing the Power of Big Data
  4. Interview by McKinsey Consulting firm: Artificial intelligence meets the C-suite McKinsey Quarterly. 2014 3rd Quarter, Issue 3, p66-75. 10p.
  5. Executive Order — Creating a National Strategic Computing Initiative
  6. Artificial Intelligence Explodes: New Deal Activity Record For AI Startups
  7. Big Data: A Report on Algorithmic Systems, Opportunity, and Civil Right
  8. Bass, G. D. (2015) Big Data and Government Accountability: An Agenda for the Future. ISJLP. [Online] 11 (1), 13–48.
  9. Bertot, J. C. et al. (2012) Promoting transparency and accountability through ICTs, social media, and collaborative e-government. Transforming Government: People, Process and Policy. [Online] 6 (1), 78–91.

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