DOE's new office to leverage biotech, power electronics, and AI for clean energy

The Office of Critical and Emerging Technology will take advantage of the department’s mountain of data resources.

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December 13, 2023

Photo credit: Department of Energy

The Department of Energy is getting a new office, focused on artificial intelligence and other advanced technologies that could be transformative for the energy sector. 

These technologies — including biotechnology, quantum, microelectronics, and semiconductors in addition to AI — have the potential to “be a major source of new discoveries and breakthroughs, strengthen our ability to counter national security threats, and increase access to clean, reliable, and affordable energy,” according to the new Office of Critical and Emerging Technology websites. 

The office is set up to pull together the efforts of 17 national laboratories and other DOE research programs on critical and emerging technologies to “amplify” the department’s expertise, inform policy making, and develop partnerships with industry and academia. 

Helena Fu will head the new Office of Critical and Emerging Technology, and will also take on a new role as DOE’s Chief Artificial Intelligence Officer. Fu formerly sat on the National Security Council before her role as senior advisor to the Under Secretary for Science and Innovation.  

The office as a whole, as well as Fu’s new position, is the result of President Joe Biden’s sweeping executive order on AI, released in late October, which also created Fu’s new position. 

Just hours after the new office was announced, Fu testified before a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing looking into the implications of AI for the U.S. economy. Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) said in a statement that she believes there is a need for regulation and a “national data privacy standard.” 

Fu told Semafor that DOE will not be in the business of regulating AI; rather, it will focus on potential vulnerabilities and build up “the meat and bones of what could go into regulation.”

In her testimony, Fu pointed to DOE’s existing support for AI research, including a focus on reducing the energy intensity of AI computing, understanding weather conditions for clean energy generation, and materials discovery.

While the private sector is generally considered to lead on AI advancements, Fu said DOE has a unique and outsized role to play. The department must focus on a handful of key areas and competencies, including its access to specialized data; DOE has thousands of times more scientific data than the largest AI models are trained on, she said. 

“DOE’s network of scientific user facilities and sectoral responsibility for grid critical infrastructure makes us the largest generator and user of scientific and technical data in the country,” Fu added. “This data is a tremendous resource and asset that must be harnessed.”

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