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Artificial intelligence and machine learning have the potential to supercharge the scientific research enterprise in the United States.

That is the vision of the Honorable Senthuraman Panchanathan, director of the National Science Foundation, the opening keynote speaker of the 76th Annual Meeting of the ORAU Council of Sponsoring Institutions, held virtually March 8-10, 2021.

The annual meeting focused on “Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning,” and provided over 150 attendees with a forum to discuss key technology, economic and policy challenges and opportunities. Experts and leaders from academia, federal agencies, and national organizations shared their views on AI and machine learning, as well as transitioning innovative research into practice.

AI and machine learning are “areas we need to be leap-frogging in strength and scale,” Panchanathan said.

The NSF was created by Congress in 1950 to promote the progress of sciences, secure the national defense and advance the national health, prosperity and welfare. Panchanathan said his organization is dedicated to advancing the frontiers of research into the future, ensuring accessibility and inclusivity, and securing global leadership.

AI and machine learning are driving competition around the world, which Panchanathan believes is an advantage for the United States.

“Competition has made us more excellent than we’ve ever been,” he said, adding that AI and machine learning can help researchers conceptualize and solve problems. For example, wireless providers could use machine learning to build new wireless networks that meet the needs of future applications.

NSF has launched two AI initiatives with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Transportation with the intent of developing the next generation food and transportation systems.

Global competition is fueling something of an AI and machine learning arms race, said Jill Crisman, Ph.D, principal director for artificial intelligence in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering at the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD). The U.S. and its adversaries are working to use AI both to advance their national interests and gain superiority.

DoD uses AI in a number of ways including data analysis, identifying influence operations on military personnel by our adversaries, and to assist in making tactical, operational and strategic planning and decision support. More recently, the DoD has adopted Deep Learning and Deep Neural Networks (DNNs). Deep Learning trains a Deep Neural Network, a software model of the brain, to perform complex tasks. DNNs are useful in mining “Big Data” for insights and intelligence contained within the data.

Crisman warned that AI and machine learning have vulnerabilities that can be exploited by America’s adversaries, particularly in the area of deep fakes, which are digitally manipulated media that make someone appear to do or say something that did not happen.

“A lot of research needs to be done in this area, both in how to create it and how to spot it,” she said.

Diversity and inclusion will be key to expanding the nation’s AI and machine learning workforce, said Patricia Martinez, Presidential Innovation Fellow in the AI and Technology Office at the U.S. Department of Energy.

“Nine percent of the workforce is AI skilled – primarily white males,” she said. “We now have the opportunity to support underrepresented groups that make up a small portion of the AI workforce.”

Setting the groundwork for increasing AI skills in the workforce was one of aims of this year’s annual meeting, said Ken Tobin, vice president and senior research officer, ORAU Research and University Partnerships Office.

“Overall, our annual meeting provided an excellent opportunity for our university partners and ORAU to explore the technology and issues surrounding AI and machine learning,” he said. “The federal government is investing heavily in the science and technology of AI. Being able to prioritize important areas and understand how the technology will be used and how to use it fairly was key to this event.”