Future of Work

Trump Calls for New AI Workforce-Development Efforts, But Offers No New Money

By Benjamin Herold — February 12, 2019 3 min read
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President Donald Trump on Monday signed a new executive order directing federal agencies to focus their attention on artificial intelligence, including new workforce-preparation efforts that could reach down into K-12.

Experts from the burgeoning field of AI-education said they’re pleased the issue is getting high-level federal attention, but described Trump’s order as scant on details, especially when it comes to new money.

“While the order hits on key notes, I have remaining questions about how it will be implemented,” said Tess Posner, the CEO of AI4ALL, a nonprofit that provides education and mentorship programs in artificial intelligence to high school students.

“As a nation and as part of an international community, we need to develop standards, resources for teachers, career pathways, and other resources, all of which will require new funding,” Posner said.

The presidential order on “Maintaining American Leadership in Artificial Intelligence” aims to promote sustained investment in research and development around AI, in part by enhancing access to federal data and improving technical standards.

The order also calls on federal agencies to “train the next generation of American AI researchers and users through apprenticeships; skills programs; and education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), with an emphasis on computer science.” Training programs should include high school as well as undergraduate and graduate students, the order says. And the federal government should support “the development of instructional programs and curricula that encourage the integration of AI technologies into courses in order to facilitate personalized and adaptive learning experiences for formal and informal education and training.”

From a labor-market perspective, the order offers “welcome attention to the acute need for STEM education and training at all levels,” said Mark Muro, a senior fellow for the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institute, which has been analyzing the potential impact of AI and automation on American workers.

But the order is “a bit thin” on larger questions around the future of work, Muro said, including the need to ensure smoother transitions for the employees who will inevitably be displaced by AI-related automation.

It also pays distressingly little attention to issues around the ethical development of artificial intelligence and the privacy concerns that come with such technology, several experts said.

And K-12 leaders also expressed concern about the order’s lack of depth on what relevant, appropriate education around AI might entail.

“Without a concerted effort to teach AI principles to children, the U.S. risks putting students at a disadvantage once they enter the global workforce,” said Tara Chklovski, the CEO of Iridescent, a STEM-education nonprofit that teaches AI to underserved groups in more than 100 countries globally.

Chklovski singled out China as a particular threat to American leadership on the issue, saying the country “is already making major investments in AI education for teenagers.”

Some such work is already happening in U.S. schools. In the South Fayette district near Pittsburgh, for example, the high school computer science pathway offers students instruction around a mix of topics including programming, math, data science, and the ethics of AI.

But for such efforts to really take off, schools need funding and support for teacher training and professional development, partnerships with universities and employers, apprenticeships, and more, said Aileen Owens, the district’s director of technology and innovation.

Such transformational work is “being done in pockets all over the United States,” Owens said, but “it’s time to take this to scale.”

The new presidential order, however, contains no new direct funding.

As a result, said Muro of the Brookings Institute, it will function primarily as a “signaling mechanism to Congress” to prioritize AI in upcoming budgets.

Whether that actually happens remains to be seen.

Photo: Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, left, and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, right, listen as President Donald Trump speaks during a cabinet meeting at the White House, Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019, in Washington.--AP Photo/ Evan Vucci/AP

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.