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Different images from NSF AI Institute

The White House called for new funding for AI research including a constellation of research centers. Nonetheless, the U.S. government’s annual spending on the technology still would lag behind that of several other nations.

What’s new: The 2021 U.S. budget proposal includes $180 million to establish seven new artificial intelligence research institutes funded through the National Science Foundation, Department of Agriculture, and other agencies. Private-sector partners including Dell, Facebook, and Netflix would contribute another $300 million. The proposal awaits approval by Congress.

Focused research: The new institutes target both basic research and industrial applications:

Behind the news: The White House has said it would boost AI spending by $2 billion in the next two years. The 2020 U.S. budget allocated around $850 million to nonmilitary spending on AI research and $4 billion to military AI spending. Other nations match or exceed these figures:

  • The European Union plans to spend €1.5 billion (roughly $1.8 billion) in machine learning research between 2018 and 2020. That’s in addition to efforts by member states like France, which aims to spend the same amount by 2022.
  • The EU is also pushing for combined private and public sector AI funding of €20 billion (nearly $24 billion) annually.
  • The Chinese government spends between ¥13.5 billion (around $2 billion) and ¥57.5 billion (roughly $8.5 billion) annually on military and civilian AI research, according to a 2019 study by Georgetown University.
  • By 2022, South Korea expects to spend ₩2.2 trillion (around $1.8 billion) to build out the country’s AI research infrastructure and train AI professionals.

Yes, but: American tech giants are pouring billions more into AI. A 2018 study estimated that the top 10 tech companies, all based in the U.S., have spent a combined $8.6 billion acquiring AI startups since 1998, and some spend lavishly on research.

Why it matters: The U.S. government sees itself in an arms race for dominance in AI. It has a head start, thanks mostly to the country’s strong private tech sector. However, a recent report concluded that spending must reach $25 billion annually to keep up with perceived rivals.

We’re thinking: Early funding for deep learning from the National Science Foundation and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) was critical in establishing the technology. The last thing the world needs is another arms race, but — at a time when U.S. government funds for research have been flat — we’d like to see AI get more public support.


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