Key to AI development is investing in the right things, former IARPA director says

When it comes to AI investments, it is all about where you put the money not just how much.

To stay on the cutting edge of artificial intelligence development, the U.S. needs to better encourage immigration of skilled technologists, dedicate higher levels of education funding and maintain international alliances, according to the former head of Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Countries like China, the U.S. and Russia are all vying for top spots in AI development. The new technology could usher in a radical change to data analytics and military applications, giving technological advantage to whoever reaches broad-scale AI implementation first.

Many think tanks and media reports contend that China is massively outdoing the U.S. in development, but that can be misleading, said Jason Matheny, director of the Center for Security and Emerging Technology at Georgetown University and former IARPA director.

“We see lots of current estimates….but I have not seen really good empirics yet justifying those estimates,” he said during a fireside chat at the AI World Government conference this week. On top of that, questions of how China is spending its money — be it on quantitative research or human development — are still unanswered.


When it comes to U.S. AI investments, Matheny still sees an advantage.

At IARPA, Matheny led investments in AI for applications in the intelligence community. How money is invested is as important as how much of it is spent, he said.

“Our ability to attract and retain the world’s best and brightest computer scientists and electrical engineers is something we have greatly benefited from,” he said. That attraction comes mainly from the quality of higher education available in the U.S.

It’s no secret that the areas of investment Matheny pointed to — immigration and higher education funding — have become increasingly political in recent years. The president has released budget proposals to cut higher education funding and called for more stringent immigration laws.

Foreign-born students make up the vast majority of engineering programs in the U.S. higher education system, according to a 2017 report from the National Foundation for American Policy, a non-partisan research group. Many engineering students want to stay in the U.S. after graduation, Matheny added.


“Another advantage…is our ability to maintain friendships with other countries,” Matheny said.

International alliances can facilitate research collaboration. Alliance networks also help to maintain global rules on the use of technologies with potentially disruptive applications.

The final key to U.S. AI advancement is the free and open marketplace for both financial investments and values, Matheny said — having a competitive marketplace is the best way to ensure money finds its way to the right ideas.

Latest Podcasts