The Department of Energy’s chief commercialization officer works with the DoE’s national laboratories on transferring AI and other technologies to the private sector.
The Department of Energy’s first chief commercialization officer, Conner Prochaska, says the U.S. is positioned to win the AI technology race — and believes it’s critical it does, for the good of the world.
In this Q&A, conducted at the DoE’s InnovationXLab Artificial Intelligence Summit here this week, Prochaska talks about government AI strategy and how basic science evolves into commercial products. He also reflects on the U.S. rivalry with China over AI, and how he sees the U.S. government AI strategy as embodying democratic values.
A former Naval intelligence officer and trained lawyer, Prochaska likens the AI race to the nuclear arms race of a previous era, and says the U.S. is committed to winning the battle. The U.S. is well positioned to do so, Prochaska says, with assets such as the DoE’s new Artificial Intelligence and Technology Office, created in response to President Donald Trump’s executive order on AI and exascale supercomputers. Here, he discusses the government AI strategy and supercomputing potential.
How do you move advanced technologies such as AI out of the public sector and into the private sector, and how is that part of the government AI strategy?
Conner Prochaska: Let me take a step a little higher than AI. When we talk about the Department of Energy, and its history in the weapons program — the origin of the department is the Atomic Energy Commission — and this vast complex of 17 national labs, how do we get that to where it actually makes an impact?
There’s a few steps from the basic research we do in the department to a product or a thing or change in the world, similar to NASA. At the Department of Energy we spend roughly $18 billion a year in research and development. Most of that research is basic science. There’s not an end, like NASA does research to go to Mars, or how the Department of Defense does research to protect soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines and win wars. The Department of Energy does research for the betterment of humanity — not to sound overly romantic about it. But there’s a step beyond just the research and how we get that
In the history of the department it was like, ‘Well, somebody will come find us. We’ll publish a paper and someone will come.’ Now we’re trying to make it a little more purposeful and less accidental. How do we make sure it’s not some firewall between us and industry, and how do we grow that impact? Now bring that to artificial intelligence. When we talk about artificial intelligence, we scan our giant complex of 17 national labs and facilities; do we know everything that’s going on? We’re doing a lot, but it’s pretty disparate across the department. Let’s bring it together, so we do have a more purposeful path to artificial intelligence [and other technologies].