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The US Finally Has An Artificial Intelligence Strategy (Sort of)

The US Finally Has An Artificial Intelligence Strategy (Sort of)

This week, President Trump signed an executive order directing the US government to come up with a plan to sharpen America's edge in artificial intelligence. It's the closest Washington has come to laying out a national strategy for AI since Trump took office, and comes nearly two years after Beijing's central planners unveiled their ambitious plan to turn China in to the world leader in AI by 2030.

Here's a quick primer on how to think about the emerging US approach to a field that will shape the global balance of power in coming decades.



The private sector is in the driver's seat

The US and China both increasingly see success in AI as a national imperative, but to the extent that the countries are in a "race" to master AI, it's one between Silicon Valley and China's highly capable tech companies – not governments. Policies that flow from Washington and Beijing will play an important role in shaping how the AI revolution pans out, but government plans and the actual innovation needed to get there are two different things.

The emerging US strategy: play defense

For decades, the US's national technology strategy has been one of benign neglect: keep the government out of the way and reap the benefits of private sector innovation. But that's now changing under pressure from an increasingly influential contingent of national security hawks. They're worried that if China catches up to or surpasses the US in AI or other key technology fields, it could blunt US military superiority and dull America's economic edge.

While Trump's executive order calls on federal agencies to come up with new ways to boost the AI sector in the US, such as making more federal data available for training AI algorithms and prioritizing AI in government R&D funding, the main thrust of the strategy is defensive. The order is focused on protecting America's AI advantage rather than using public resources to develop new technologies. If the ongoing trade war and recent legal actionsagainst Huawei are any guide, that could mean policies that make it harder for Chinese students to study in the US, or other efforts to limit Chinese access to US technologies – like semiconductors – that are key to making progress in AI.

The risk? In a word, overreach. President Trump wants to protect American innovation, but there's a danger that the US ends up shooting itself in the foot by cutting off the cross-border flows of capital, talent, and knowhow that Silicon Valley has historically tapped to make new breakthroughs.

Meet Ian Martin, an English Professor from Glasgow who is now head of Communications for Eni's International Resources. Approaching his work in the same way he used to hold his lectures, Ian is dedicated to listening and making people around him comfortable. Having working in both Milan and London, Ian utilizes his ability to communicate in different languages and cultures to prepare Eni's global messaging strategy. "Communication is a transfer of humanity," he says, and his job is as much centered around people as it as around language.

Watch Ian's human approach to communications on the most recent episode of Faces of Eni.

How to capture the essence of this incredible, terrible year in a few short words and without using profanity? It's not easy.

Thankfully, the dictionary website Merriam-Webster.com has released its list of most heavily searched words of 2020, and they tell the story of an historic year in US politics and the life of our planet. Here's a sample.

The top word, unsurprisingly, was "Pandemic," a disease outbreak that covers a wide area and afflicts lots of people. In 2020, the coronavirus crisis hit every region of the world, triggering a public health, economic, and political emergency on a geographic scale our planet has never experienced. Differing responses to that problem defined the politics (and geopolitics) of 2020.

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While recent news from Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca on the efficacy of their respective COVID vaccines is encouraging, it has also given rise to bidding wars between wealthy countries trying to secure the largest supply of the new drugs for their citizens. Meanwhile, many governments in emerging market economies, where healthcare infrastructure is generally weaker, are worried they'll be kicked to the back of the line in the global distribution process. Indeed, history bears out their concerns: while a lifesaving HIV treatment hit shelves in the West in the mid-1990s, for example, it took years to become widely in Africa, which saw some of the worst HIV outbreaks in the world. But here's the catch: even if wealthy countries manage to obtain large supplies of vaccines to immunize their populations, the interconnected nature of the global economy means that no one will really be out of the woods until we all are. Here's a snapshot of how many COVID vaccines select countries have already purchased.

Afghanistan's small breakthrough: For months, disagreements over a range of political issues have hamstrung the intra-Afghan peace talks brokered by the Trump administration that aim to bridge the years-long conflict between the Afghan government and the Taliban. But this week, a significant breakthrough was made on the principles and procedures governing the talks, that, experts say, will help push negotiations to the next phase. One key advance is agreement on the official name of the Afghan government, an issue that stalled talks earlier this year. Still, progress is fragile. Taliban violence and efforts to seize territory have only increased since the militants and the US reached a deal in February on a blueprint for an American troop withdrawal. And the Trump administration says it aims to pull out all but 2,500 US troops by mid-January, whether the Taliban have kept their end of the deal or not. What's more, while this week's development puts the parties one step closer to an eventual power-sharing agreement, it's unclear whether the incoming Biden administration will even honor the Trump administration's deal with the Taliban.

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Two weeks ago, Russia secured a deal to build a naval base in Sudan, its first new military facility in Africa since the end of the Cold War. The accord is a major milestone in Moscow's wider push to regain influence, and income, on a continent where the Kremlin was once a major player.

But with the ideological and military contests of the Cold War long over, what is Moscow doing in Africa today?

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Reasons for Hope: COVID and the Coming Year. Watch on Friday. Dec 4 2020 12 noon - 1 pm ET

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