For the last 59 years, Congress has passed—and the President has signed into law—the National Defense Authorization Act. This streak is often heralded as an example of bipartisanship and support for funding the nation’s defense.
Despite national and global challenges in 2020, both chambers have taken the prerequisite steps to pass the NDAA for the 60th year in a row. On July 21, the House of Representatives passed its version of the Fiscal Year 2021 NDAA by a vote of 295 to 125. The Senate followed two days later, 86 to 14.
Both bills have dozens of provisions relevant to artificial intelligence and science and technology policy. While there are similarities, the bills also contain significant differences. As the committees prepare to negotiate a bicameral compromise, CSET has summarized major AI and S&T provisions.
Science & Technology Bureaucratic Reforms
Provisions in both bills would reform or create bureaucratic mechanisms across the U.S. governmental science and technology enterprise. Most notably, the House bill provides the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center with the authority to develop, acquire and sustain AI technologies for DOD through 2025.
Both bills address the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence’s recommendation to elevate the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, though in different ways. The House bill places the JAIC under the authority of the Deputy Secretary of Defense, whereas the Senate bill maintains the JAIC’s position underneath the DOD Chief Information Officer and encourages continued study of the issue. Both measures stop short of NSCAI’s recommendation to establish the JAIC director as a direct report to the Secretary of Defense.
The House bill also adopts major provisions of the National Artificial Intelligence Initiative Act, and the National AI Research Resource Task Force Act to establish a number of new bodies to support AI development and innovation. This measure creates an interagency council to oversee a National AI Initiative, an advisory council of outside experts to advise the President on AI and a National AI Research Resource Task Force responsible for outlining a plan to create a national cloud resource.
CSET research has repeatedly highlighted the importance of talent to AI innovation. The number of talent and workforce-related provisions in the House and Senate versions of the NDAA show that Congress recognizes this fact.
In the House, Armed Services Intelligence and Emerging Threats and Capabilities Chairman Langevin and Ranking Member Stefanik led an effort to incorporate a version of their National Security Innovation Pathways Act into the final bill. Their amendment, adopted as part of an en bloc package, provides special immigration status to 10 foreign nationals each year with expertise in science and technology areas critical to national security, starting in 2021. This authorization extends to 100 individuals in 2031 and each year thereafter. For its part, the Senate bill directs DOD to establish an adjunct section on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery to test for computational reasoning skills.
Both bills fulfill an NSCAI recommendation by directing DOD to establish a program that provides part-time or term employment for STEM faculty and students to perform research at DOD Reinvention Laboratories. The provision mandates the creation of 10 such positions within one year, five of which would be dedicated to artificial intelligence and machine learning.
Additionally, the bills:
- Support computer science training in the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps by authorizing grants for STEM training in JROTC units (House) and encourage continued investment in computer science training (Senate); and
- Codify measures allowing foreign students to remain in the United States while taking online courses as a result of COVID-19 (House).
Both chambers also sought to address growing concerns about the security of the U.S. research enterprise. The Senate bill mandates a study from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine comparing U.S. and Chinese S&T recruitment efforts, including types of talent programs, their relative effectiveness, and recommendations to improve U.S. recruitment and retention efforts.
During floor consideration, the House adopted an amendment proposed by Representative Reschenthaler directing the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering to appoint an official responsible for coordinating on security issues with the research community. The official would coordinate policies with other executive branch agencies and conduct outreach and provide threat assessments to academia and other researchers.
The bills also:
- Direct DOD to develop a list of defense-sensitive critical technologies and establish, enforce and track actions being taken to protect such technologies (Senate);
- Require the development of a program for senior-level officials at higher education institutions to receive regular briefings on espionage threats posed by foreign adversaries (Senate).
Hardware and Export Controls
Existing concerns over the security of the U.S. industrial base have only become more magnified with the pandemic. Provisions in both bills related to the United States industrial base, exports of sensitive technologies and U.S. technological leadership at the cutting edge reflect this concern within Congress and elsewhere.
The House and Senate both adopted floor amendments based on recent proposals that seek to invest in advanced semiconductor research and development and expand U.S. semiconductor manufacturing capacity. The amendments represent combined versions of the CHIPS for America Act and American Foundries Act, and establish programs to incentivize greater semiconductor manufacturing activity in the United States and promote research and development of state-of-the-art and future generation semiconductors.
Separately, the House also adopted provisions cracking down on China’s human rights abuses against the Uyghur population. The amendment proposed by Representative Malinowski directs the President to identify and list on the Commerce Control List items used by the Chinese government to suppress human rights through surveillance, facial recognition and forced labor. The amendment includes a presumption of denial for any application for licenses to export such items.
Additionally, the bills:
- Direct the National Institute of Standards and Technology to develop a program to support advanced microelectronics research (House); and
- Mandate a DOD report on industrial policy recommendations to include potential subsidy, tax credit, trade and export control proposals (Senate).
AI Innovations and Applications
The bills include 16 different provisions expressly promoting greater development, application and integration of AI or other technologies, dwarfing the number of other types of S&T provisions. Congress is seemingly eager to ensure that DOD and others can effectively transition basic research into applied technologies, including in AI.
The Senate bill directs the USD/RE to develop a list of critical technology areas and designate a senior official in charge of each of those areas. Each official would be responsible for managing research, development, engineering and resourcing activities for their respective technology across the Department. The bills also:
- Direct DOD to identify at least five cases where AI technology can be integrated to support administrative and management functions (Senate); and
- Direct DOD to determine datasets that can be publicly released to foster research and innovation in data analytics and AI (House).
The House and Senate Armed Services Committee will now hold conference negotiations to reach a final, agreed-upon version of the bill, a process that HASC Chairman Adam Smith has predicted may take until November. While the White House has issued a formal veto threat of the House bill, both measures passed their respective chambers by veto-proof margins.