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As part of his two-day visit to the Pittsburgh region this week, U.S. Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette participated in a discussion at Carnegie Mellon University, along with U.S. Chief Technology Officer Michael Kratsios.

The “fireside chat,” moderated by CMU’s Vice President of Research Michael McQuade and livestreamed via Brouillette’s Twitter account, focused on the region’s progress in technology and artificial intelligence.

Brouillette’s visit included a stop at the Shell ethane cracker plant in Beaver County on Monday and at the UA Local 449 Steamfitters later Tuesday, aimed at highlighting the importance of energy production in the region.

The discussion at CMU began with comments on the covid-19 pandemic, which officials agreed demonstrated the world’s need for artificial intelligence technology. McQuade noted the role of AI in accelerating drug discovery and therapeutic research, as well as the production of personal protection equipment.

“I was just absolutely stunned by the capabilities of some of our national laboratories and the work that they did in the very early stages of the pandemic,” Brouillette said. He noted the quick analysis of hundreds of pages of research, giving health professionals “as much of a head start” as possible to identify life-saving drug compounds. “The application of artificial intelligence in that was absolutely key.”

Those same capabilities can be used to help officials and researchers across industries and sectors, he said.

The Energy Department’s Artificial Intelligence & Technology Office exists to consolidate and coordinate work from 17 laboratories nationwide, Brouillette said. It also includes an effort to make technologies developed in national laboratories available to the private sector. The office, Brouillette said, is a multi-faceted approach to furthering the research around energy production and efficiency.

“We still feel very strongly that there’s much research to be done,” he said. “We don’t have all the answers yet. And if we can use the work that’s being done at our national laboratories and our artificial intelligence to help us find better solutions and better answers, then we want to do that.”

Much of the research focuses on making the nation’s grid more resilient and reliable, considering cybersecurity applications, intellectual property and other applications.

The development of artificial intelligence has become a priority at the federal level, Kratsios said, as the administration has dedicated more money to non-defense AI research and the development of policies intended to encourage innovation. A February 2019 executive order laid out a national strategy for workforce development in the technology, creating clear regulations that “remove barriers to innovation” and encouraging international engagement, Kratsios said.

“AI was a critical technology that the U.S. had to lead on,” he said.

The possibilities and uses for artificial intelligence are growing, the panelists agreed, noting that Pittsburgh is a fitting example to see it at work.

“The power of this particular technology coupled with strong academic institutions is something that many communities all across the country can learn about and learn lessons,” Kratsios said. “There’s huge value in that feedback loop.”