In the 1992 movie “Sneakers”, the two main characters played by Robert Redford and Ben Kingsley have a dramatic rooftop argument over a universal decryption device that has the power to hack into any system around the world. Kingsley’s evil-genius character, Cosmo, forcefully preaches that “…the world isn’t run by weapons anymore, or energy or money, it’s run by little ones and zeros, little bits of data…”. A few moments later he continues, “There’s a war out there old friend, a world war, and it’s not about who’s got the most bullets…it’s about who controls the information!”  It’s remarkable how accurate and prophetic this scene was, given that it took place before the Web went mainstream. Two decades later, in an increasingly digital and data-driven world, information technology supremacy has indeed become the next space race.

Ben Kingsley’s character “Cosmo” in the 1992 movie, “Sneakers”.

It appears that our government is committed to winning that race and has placed near the top of its priority list, the rapid advancement of artificial intelligence (AI). Evidence of this can be found in Federal and Defense spending plans including doubling the budget for AI R&D by 2022, spreading hundreds of millions of dollars across the National Science Foundation, Energy Department, Department of Agriculture and National Institutes of Health. Additionally, the 2021 AI budgets are increasing for the DOD from $780M to $841M, with the Joint AI Center (JAIC) staff doubling and DARPA receiving a $50M boost to $450M. As the FY2021 budget states, AI “is transforming every segment of American life, with applications ranging from medical diagnostics and precision agriculture, to autonomous transportation, job reskilling and upskilling and national defense, and beyond.”

The most recent evidence of a formal commitment to AI came in January 2021, with the announcement of a new federal organization called the National Artificial Intelligence Initiative Office.  For obvious reasons this news has been overshadowed by other events, but its long-term implications will be huge. According to the official statement, “The Office is charged with overseeing and implementing the United States national AI strategy and will serve as the central hub for Federal coordination and collaboration in AI research and policymaking across the government, as well as with private sector, academia, and other stakeholders.”

While there are a great many policy differences between the outgoing and incoming administrations, it appears this focus on AI investments and advancements has strong bipartisan support and will continue unabated in 2021 and beyond. This is great news to many of us in the industry who have been concerned about falling behind the rest of the world.

AI is not a panacea and comes with challenging pitfalls including unintended bias, lack of transparency (black box), and misinterpretation of results. That said, AI holds the key to many of our most difficult challenges and requires our attention, investment and oversight in the coming years. The creation of the National AI Initiative Office is an early step in a long journey, but it’s an important one. The trick is going to be leveraging the upsides of AI, while minimizing its downsides.

Like Cosmo said, “It’s all about the information!”

I’ll be keeping a close eye on this new agency as it develops and would also love to hear your thoughts. Please share your insights and comments below.    



Stephenson is the co-founder and CEO of Topos Labs, a Boston-based cognitive computing company. Connect with him on LinkedIn, Twitter or Email.