The United States aims to invest $765 million over the next 5 years in a dozen scientific centers dedicated to the study of artificial intelligence (AI) and quantum information science (QIS), such as quantum computing, the White House announced today. Numerous private tech companies such as IBM, Google, and Intel will also contribute to the twin pushes, which call for a total of more than $1 billion in research investment.
“[T]hese institutes are a manifestation of the uniquely American free-market approach to technological advancement,” write Michael Kratsios, the White House’s chief technology officer, and Chris Liddell, the White House’s deputy chief of staff for policy coordination in the announcement. “Each institute brings together the federal government, industry, and academia, positioning us to leverage the full power and expertise of the United States’ innovation ecosystem.”
Seven of the centers will be based at universities and focus on various applications of AI, which generally involves programming that enables a computer to learn to find useful patterns, such as the most effective moves in a board game. Each center will receive $20 million over 5 years, assuming Congress approves the funding, with a down payment coming out of funds already approved for this year. Five will receive support from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and two from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
Each AI center will focus on a particular application. For example, the University of Oklahoma, Norman, will host NSF’s Institute for Research on Trustworthy AI in Weather, Climate, and Coastal Oceanography. NSF envisions investing an additional $300 million in grants to support AI work.
The five other centers, to be funded by the Department of Energy (DOE) and located at its national laboratories, will focus on myriad aspects of QIS, including developing testbeds for emerging quantum computers, technologies to establish an essentially unhackable quantum internet, and quantum sensors for various applications. DOE has proposed giving each of the five centers $125 million over 5 years. For instance, Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Illinois, will host a center called Q-NEXT, which will focus on quantum networks and materials for quantum technologies. In addition to the $625 million that DOE will invest in the centers, private partners and universities will contribute another $300 million to the centers, according to the White House.
Although the announcement brings into focus the locations and purviews of the various centers, the push to develop them isn’t new and didn’t necessarily originate in the White House. For example, in 2016 the previous administration called for a concerted effort to expand research in AI. And in December 2018, Congress passed the bipartisan National Quantum Initiative Act, which called for, among other things, establishing up to five DOE centers.
Ironically for some researchers, one lead sponsor of that act was former Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), then-head of the House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, who was the bête noire of many scientists. Smith, who retired from Congress in 2019, raised hackles among some researchers and among Democrats on the committee by insisting, for example, that in reviewing proposals, NSF consider whether work served “the national interest” and for questioning the need for government action on climate change. Under his guidance, the science committee, which he led for 6 years, was considered by some observers among the most partisan congressional committees. And yet, he and a bipartisan team came together to craft the quantum initiative.
Now, a large part of that initiative is about to become a reality. Perhaps, following the long tradition of naming federally funded research centers after the lawmakers who made them possible, one of the new centers will bear Smith’s name.