Managing emerging technology at the Energy Department

Helena Fu’s new job puts her in charge of technologies that could produce promising innovation and serious risks in the future. 

Fu, who leads the Department of Energy’s (DOE) new Office of Critical and Emerging Technology, is in charge of coordinating the department’s research around artificial intelligence (AI), quantum computing, semiconductors and more. 

She said the new office won’t do research itself but will focus on “setting a vision and coordinating across the department.” 

“DOE has so much equity, so much that we’re doing, in critical and emerging technology that I think does not often rise above the fact that we have the word ‘energy’ in our agency name,” she told The Hill in a recent interview. 

“The intent of this office is really to bring all that together in a coherent picture, to work across the programs, to work across the labs, to make sure that we’re all on the same page and also that our resources are being leveraged for the good of the nation.” 

In addition, Fu is also the department’s chief AI officer at a time when that development has drawn increasing concern from lawmakers and the public. 

Asked whether she views AI as more of a positive or a negative, she noted the technology can have impacts in both directions. 

“AI obviously presents [a] tremendous challenge … it also presents tremendous opportunity,” Fu said.  

“We really need to manage both,” she added, saying she believes that’s something the Energy Department is equipped to do. 

“We’re both an open, civilian agency, but we have a national security mandate as well, so we’re very comfortable working on both sides of the line.” 

AI has emerged as an innovation that could be a key tool for scientific calculations, saving consumers time and a variety of other practical applications. 

But concerns have also been raised about whether AI — in which technology learns to recognize and utilize patterns — could jeopardize national security safeguards and lead to job-killing automation, prompting rising calls for government regulation.  

The new office isn’t expected to be regulatory in nature, Fu said. But she added the DOE could do the scientific work that informs how other agencies regulate. 

She said the department is working closely with the Commerce Department, Department of Homeland Security and National Institute of Standards and Technology to “develop some of the model guardrails for what could be part of eventual regulation.” 

It’s hard to say how many AI research projects are going on at the DOE, Fu said, but it spends a billion dollars annually to fund AI-enabling tech.  

What AI can do goes far beyond viral chatbots — with Fu saying the department is looking at developing “physics-informed models that will help us with our big science and nuclear security and energy questions.” 

In the energy sector, Fu said, this technology could be used to bolster the nation’s electric grid. 

“There’s a huge question around how do we help enable adoption of clean energy technologies, and that requires creating smart power grids that optimize energy distribution and management,” she said.  

“Looking across the spectrum of both risk and opportunity, this is absolutely something that’s front and center,” she said, adding that AI could also be applied to permitting, the process of approving energy and infrastructure projections.  

In the defense realm, she said, it can be used to better detect and prevent weapons proliferation.  

Asked whether it would be used to make more precise weapons, she did not give a direct yes or no, saying instead, “For us, it is about how we accelerate timelines for many things.”  

Fu also touted additional research the department is doing that goes beyond its “Energy” name, including biotechnology, which the administration has said it hopes to use for in areas including health, climate change, food security and agriculture. 

“I think about the resources that we have at our national labs like the Joint Genome Institute and the Agile BioFoundry to develop alternative materials through bio-based mechanisms,” Fu said. “These are the kinds of things that are really going to revolutionize our economy but also the way people live.” 

“It really is to me about how we are able to leverage this collective capacity that we have … [to] maximize the benefit of what we’re doing for the wider community,” she said. 

Fu has worked in multiple roles in the areas of energy, national security and technology, including on research security policy at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. She has also worked at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, including as its energy attaché. 

She has a background in urban and environmental planning.  

“I should not and do not profess to be an expert in these things,” she said. “My expertise is systems thinking, like how we bring all these different parts of the department together for a greater whole.” 

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