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Waggoner helping Alabama lead on artificial intelligence growth

State Sen. Jabo Waggoner (R-Vestavia Hills), the powerful chair of the Senate Rules Committee, is at the forefront of a concerted effort to make Alabama a leader in the emerging field of artificial intelligence (AI).

In the 2019 regular session that concluded last week, the Alabama legislature unanimously passed Waggoner’s Senate Joint Resolution 71, which would create the Alabama Commission on Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Associated Technologies.

Now, Governor Kay Ivey has approved Waggoner’s measure, giving the Yellowhammer State one of the first AI, state-focused commissions of its kind in the nation.

“In a few short years, artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies will transform business, create new jobs and grow our economy,” Waggoner said in a statement. “Realizing the full potential and opportunities of AI and related technologies for Alabama requires the combined efforts of our state and local governments, industry, and institutions of higher education.”

The newly created commission will advise Ivey and the legislature on the growth of AI technologies in Alabama and make recommendations on policy and advancing the prowess of the state’s technology sector.

This comes after recent studies have identified opportunities and challenges for Alabama’s technology sector.

For example, Waggoner pointed out that the Bloomberg 2019 U.S. Innovation Index ranked Alabama at 46 of 50 states. The Bloomberg Index is based on several key metrics, including the number of technology companies in a state.

However, a recent Cyberstates study noted that Alabama increased the number of job postings related to AI and other technologies by 57 percent in 2018.

“The outlook for expanding Alabama’s technology industry remains very positive. The Commission on AI will be a focal point to promote this continued growth,” Waggoner advised.

“We have to have a discussion on building an AI-ready workforce and formulate policies to continue the transformative technologies of AI in a responsible way,” he added. “The timing to convene a commission on AI couldn’t be better.”

Another revolutionary technology measure passed by the legislature this session was the Alabama Incentives Modernization (AIM) Act.

This bill, signed into law by Ivey on Thursday, provides an update to Alabama’s incentive law, providing attractive incentives to recruit out-of-state tech companies to the Yellowhammer State. The incentive legislation states, “Alabama must also prepare for the future by attracting and retaining high-tech companies, and preparing and retaining a workforce trained for such jobs.”

“The Alabama Commission on AI complements the technology incentives contained in the newly passed incentive modernization legislation. Together, these two measures give Alabama competitive leverage, and show that we are serious about building a vibrant technology sector,” Waggoner commented.

“The Commission on AI will play an important role in charting a bold course and showing the nation that we are ready for the technology jobs of the present and the future,” he concluded.

Summary of the Alabama Commission on AI as follows:

  • Mission — Advise the Governor and Legislature on all aspects of the growth of artificial intelligence and associated technology and its impact on various sectors in Alabama such as health care, manufacturing, and workforce development.
  • Membership — The 18-member Commission will be constituted as follows: ten members appointed by the Governor; the Secretary of Commerce (or designee); the Secretary of Information Technology (or designee); two members appointed by Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth; two members of the House of Representatives, appointed by Speaker Mac McCutcheon; and two members of the Alabama Senate, appointed by Senate President Del Marsh.
  • Appointees must have professional qualifications in AI, workforce development, technology, or computer science.
  • Governor Ivey shall call the Commission’s first meeting, and then the Commission will elect a chair and vice chair.
  • The Commission is charged with releasing a public report on its findings and recommendations by May 2020.

Fred McCallum, interim president and CEO of the Birmingham Business Alliance, recently wrote in support of Waggoner’s proposal.

“I am writing to express my support for the establishment of the Alabama Commission on Artificial Intelligence and Associated Technologies,” McCallum outlined. “Recent passage of the Alabama Modernization Incentives Act will create an attractive technology ecosystem in the state that boosts entrepreneurship, attracts venture capital, and increases the growth of small businesses such as start-ups.”

He continued, “In the Birmingham region, the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), Southern Research, and Innovation Depot serve as anchors for a thriving innovation and technology scene. The need to ensure that Alabama has skilled workers in this field is greater than ever, and the AI Commission will serve as a complement to these efforts. On behalf of the BBA, I thank you, Senator Waggoner, for your leadership and vision to ensure that Alabama will continue to grow and develop as a technology hub.”

Birmingham has recently been named as a growing tech hub by multiple national publications, including Forbes and Barron’s.

Last year, Huntsville was named as the nation’s best “new tech hub.”

Montgomery, with public-private collaborations with the Air Force, and Mobile have also put recent emphasis on growing tech sectors.

Prominent officials like Waggoner and Senate Majority Leader Greg Reed (R-Jasper) hope the Alabama Modernization Incentives Act will provide added competitiveness to these urban anchors while helping rural areas across the state join in on tech growth moving forward.

Sean Ross is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn