National Research Cloud Gains Big Tech, Legislator Support

The National Research Cloud, which has bipartisan support in Congress, gained approval of several universities, including Stanford, Carnegie Mellon and Ohio State, and participation of Big Tech companies Amazon, Google and IBM. The project would give academics access to a tech companies’ cloud data centers and public data sets, encouraging growth in AI research. Although the Trump administration has cut funding to other kinds of research, it has proposed doubling its spending on AI by 2022.

The New York Times reports that, “the research cloud, though a conceptual blueprint at this stage, is another sign of the largely effective campaign by universities and tech companies to persuade the American government to increase government backing for research into artificial intelligence,” largely due to its “recognition that AI technology is essential to national security and economic competitiveness.”

Representative Anna Eshoo (D-California) and Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio), two sponsors of the bill, will propose the national cloud as “an amendment to this year’s defense budget authorization.” Eshoo noted the “real challenge … [is] from China,” and Portman added that, “this is a logical first step.” “You shouldn’t have to work at Google to have access to this technology,” he said.

The National Research Cloud would provide the tremendous computing power required for deep learning, which has made “striking gains … in tasks like language understanding, computer vision, game playing and common-sense reasoning.”

The Allen Institute for AI, with data from OpenAI, reported that “the volume of calculations needed to be a leader in advanced AI had soared an estimated 300,000 times in the previous six years,” with cost in the millions of dollars. Those resources can only be afforded by “tech giants like Google, Amazon and Microsoft.”

The National Research Cloud would act to staunch the flow of university-based computer scientists to Big Tech, “lured by access to their cloud data centers as well as lucrative pay packages.”

The genesis of the project came in March, when Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence co-directors John Etchemendy and Fei-Fei Li posted the idea for a public-private partnership and “sought support from other universities … [and] then promoted the idea to their political representatives and industry contacts.”

NYT notes that, “the federal government has long backed major research projects like particle accelerators for high-energy physics in the 1960s and supercomputing centers in the 1980s.” Although the government built labs in the past, “the research cloud would use the cloud factories of the tech companies … [and] academic scientists would be government-subsidized customers of the tech giants, perhaps at rates below those charged to their business customers.”

Many researchers say it is “the only sensible path.” “We need to get scientific research on the public cloud,” said University of Washington professor Ed Lazowska. “We have to hitch ourselves to that wagon. It’s the only way to keep up.”