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Controlling the Rise of Artificial Intelligence is a Two-Way Street

Professor Walter Sinnott-Armstrong lectures on the ethics of Lethal Autonomous Weapons (LAW). Photo Credit: Duke Government Relations

February 15, 2019

The problem with artificial intelligence is that is still fairly stupid. It is prone to bias and misunderstands context clues. It misreads street signs and confuses humans for robots. But humans also succumb to biases and false positives. Humans find patterns where they don’t exist and miss patterns where they do. When it comes to the role of Congress in regulating America’s A.I. ecosystem, human and artificial intelligence must work together to check each other’s weaknesses.

The solution to this imbalance lies in understanding the strengths of both humans and machines, argued three Duke University professors in a briefing for Congressional staff on Feb. 15. Vincent Conitzer, Kimberly J. Jenkins University Professor of New Technologies; Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Chauncey Stillman Professor of Practical Ethics in the Department of Philosophy and the Kenan Institute for Ethics; and Nita Farahany, Professor of Law and Philosophy all spoke at the seminar.

Meant to highlight the central ethical questions of A.I. research, the lunchtime event coincided with President Trump’s recent Artificial Intelligence Executive Order (EO). Trump’s EO aims to educate workers in STEM fields, increase access to cloud computing systems, increase access to the data needed to build A.I. systems and to promote cooperation with friendly foreign powers. It did not set aside new funding for these priorities.

Professor Conitzer began the program with a problem: the inability of A.I. to not choose. He used a Winograd Schema, a sentence with an ambiguous word that can be resolved in two or more ways, to show how humans employ ambiguity. The English language does not assign genders to plural pronouns. So, if Google Translate moves the sentence “The men agreed with the women because they are right” into Spanish, it will have to translate “they” as either masculine or feminine.

Google Translate often defaults to masculine pronouns – possibly reflecting the selection data that trained the algorithm. Google’s artificially intelligent language translation makes decisions humans either avoid or can use context clues to properly address. That algorithmic bias, however, also highlights the problems humans have in resolving ambiguity and asks what that means for the digital future. Seen as a type of human to A.I. checks and balances, it may be exactly A.I.’s failures that help resolve some of our own.

At present, A.I. systems don’t embrace ambiguity the way humans can and don’t understand context clues either. In a way, that precision of artificially intelligent systems to hone in on a problem or trend may help humans better understand biases and logical fallacies.

A.I.’s future doesn’t only promise controlled human bias and progress, however. Some popular literature such as the Oxford University philosophy professor Nick Bostrom’s book Superintelligence asks what happens when artificial intelligence surpasses general human intelligence. Bostrom predicts a dire future where A.I. reaches beyond human control and supersedes the wishes of humankind.

When asked about the possibility for a superintelligence-type A.I. takeover, professor Conitzer redirected the conversation from long-term predictions to near-term threats. He felt the real threat to human liberty is not from an A.I. acting autonomously, but from a human using A.I. systems to control other humans.

Conitzer noted that A.I. might enable large-scale surveillance and manipulation of societies, including through the use of ‘deep-fakes’ [A.I.-generated fake images and videos]. “It’s become incredibly easy to doctor images and video in realistic ways,” he warned.

The potential of A.I. to create society-wide effects has led some countries to lead from the top with national strategic plans, such as President Trump’s A.I. Executive Order.

In addition to plans, however, several G20 countries have committed significant resources to the research and development of A.I. China and the U.S. still lead in A.I. deployment and R&D, with the U.S. taking a private-sector-led approach and the Chinese a public-sector one.

The investments in federal R&D differ greatly. By fiscal year 2017, the U.S. had spent 2.5 billion USD on federally-funded A.I. research. By 2020, the Chinese plan to invest 70 billion USD in A.I. R&D, and by 2030, the Chinese plan to invest a total of 150 billion USD in artificial intelligence R&D.

One participant asked Farahany whether the private or the public sector should take the lead in funding A.I. research. “Because A.I. is still in such a nascent phase of its development,” Farahany responded “and because we as a society are going to increasingly face ethical and legal dilemmas from its use and development, there is an important role for government in the field. They [federal research agencies] have a chance to be at the forefront of and to help spur greater innovation in A.I., and we should make sure they have the resources they need to do so.”

Professor Sinnott-Armstrong also touched on the role of government in providing definitions and direction for the use and deployment of A.I., particularly in the ethically uneasy use of lethal autonomous systems. The Department of Defense has adopted a fairly precise definition of both artificial intelligence and lethal autonomous weapons. The DoD took a top-down ethical approach instead of a bottom-up one. This intra-agency direction, Sinnott-Armstrong advised, may not work for government agencies that prefer a networked and not a chain-of-command approach.

Because of their increased precision, lethal autonomous weapons systems may be more moral than traditional human-to-human engagement. Sinnott-Armstrong argued, though, that autonomous weapons systems should not be deployed by the government too quickly, and their performance could be improved by incorporating ethical oversight into the artificial intelligence. “When properly implemented, future autonomous and semi-autonomous weapons might be able to increase effectiveness and deterrence while also reducing mistakes and civilian deaths,” he suggested.

In an ironic twist, the professors noted that the advent of A.I. may require even more human discernment and analysis than now required – in both military and non-military uses.

Several audience members asked about the ethical dilemmas of predictive policing. Predictive policing uses large amounts of demographic data to identify crime trends. Predictive policing offers one of the most acute examples of ways A.I. can either check human bias or accelerate it.

For example, an A.I. predictive policing software system may predict a result 80% of the time given a certain scenario. In such a case, it is similarly true to say ‘100% of people who drink water will die.’ There may be a 100% rate of correlation, but there is nothing valid in the relationship between the drinking of water and death. Links can be technically true and yet conceptually unhelpful at the same time.

Similarly, an A.I. predictive policing system can correlate variables such as race, class and geography and still not understand their causal relationships.

One trend resonated through the entire program: patterns alone do not bare objective truth. As each professor noted in their presentation, human analysis of a pattern reveals truth. The problem with artificially intelligent programs is that many of them ‘learn’ from reams of human-generated data. If the data lacks quality, the results will too. Human and artificial intelligence have much to offer each other, but only if they ask the right questions.

Updates – Government Shutdown December 2018/January 2019

Update: 1/25/19

Tonight, Jan. 25, President Trump signed a continuing resolution government funding bill that will re-open the shuttered portions of the federal government until Feb. 15. The bill does not include funding for Trump’s border wall.

The funding bill provides retroactive pay for hundreds of thousands of federal workers. It gives lawmakers just 21 days to negotiate a deal on border security. 

For future email notifications on government funding and other relevant federal policy issues, please sign up for the DC Digest here

If you have any questions or concerns, please feel free to reach out to Duke’s Director of Government Relations Melissa Vetterkind at 

Update: 1/14/19

As of the morning of January 14, 2019, the federal government remains in a partial shutdown for all unfunded departments and agencies. While negotiations between leaders in Congress and the Administration continue, they have yet to reach an agreement to allow the affected agencies to resume normal operations.

Duke’s Office of Government Relations (OGR) is closely monitoring the situation, and providing updates via their website. We will continue to provide updates to the grants management community as they are available. 

Please note that while certain federal departments and agencies remained closed, and many other electronic application portals remain functional. Therefore, Grant Managers and Principal Investigators should continue to submit proposals and progress reports as required. Submitted materials would be reviewed by the federal entity upon resumption of normal operations. If you learn of a federal reporting system that is unavailable and preventing the submission of a progress report, please notify your applicable pre-award office. 

In general, work should continue on all federal grants; agencies would be required to notify Duke University if work should be stopped or curtailed.  If you receive specific sponsor guidance, please notify your pre-award office immediately. 

a.          It is likely that each federal contract will receive specific guidance as to whether work can continue or if a stoppage is in effect.  If you manage federal contracts, please work with your PI and be on the lookout for this communication; please also inform your pre-award office immediately upon any communication.

The below departments and agencies are currently shut down due to a lapse in appropriations:

For a full list of agency Contingency Plans, please visit the federal Office of Management & Budget website:

The following agencies are not affected by the current shutdown and are therefore operating normally:

  • Department of Defense
  • Department of Education
  • Department of Energy
  • Department of Health and Human Services (including the National Institutes of Health)

These agencies are not affected by a lapse in funding and have continued operations.

Thank you for your continued patience during this time. If you have further questions, please contact the Office of Sponsored Programs or your applicable pre-award office.

Jim Luther
Associate Vice President, RCC & Federal Reimbursement

Update: 1/2/19

As of January 2, 2019, the federal government remains in a partial shutdown for all unfunded departments and agencies. The 115th Congress, the House of Representatives and the Senate, adjourned last week without reaching an agreement that would allow the affected agencies to resume normal operations. The 116th Congress will convene tomorrow, January 3, 2019, but leaders in Congress have yet to announce an agreement that would have the support of both chambers and the President.

         The Office of Government Relations (OGR) is closely monitoring the situation. We will continue to provide updates to the grants management community as they are available. 

        As a reminder, the following agencies currently lack funding and are therefore operating on a limited basis:

        *    NSF,

        *    DHS,

        *    Department of Commerce (including NOAA),

        *    the Environmental Protection Agency,

        *    Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and

        *    NASA

        By this time, agencies affected by the shutdown should have issued communications regarding their operating status. For specific agency Contingency Plans, please visit the OMB website:

        The following agencies are not affected by the current shutdown and are therefore operating normally:

        *    Department of Defense

        *    Department of Education

        *    Department of Energy

        *    Department of Health and Human Services (including the National Institutes of Health)

        These agencies are not affected by a lapse in funding and have continued operations.

        Jim Luther

        Associate Vice President-RCC & Federal Reimbursement

Update: 12/27/18

Research Administration Community –

As you are aware, the federal government entered a partial shutdown at midnight on Friday, December 21, 2018. At that time, nine federal departments and several agencies, including the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), were    directed by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to cease non-essential operations.     

The following agencies currently lack funding and are therefore operating on a limited basis:   

  • NSF
  • DHS
  • Department of Commerce (including NOAA)
  • the Environmental Protection Agency
  • Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
  • NASA

As of Thursday, December 27, 2018, leaders in Congress and the President have not announced an agreement that would allow the affected government agencies to resume normal operations. The Senate and House of Representatives are set to return to Washington; however, neither chamber is expected to vote on a funding deal without providing 24 hours notices to their members. We will continue to monitor legislative and executive actions, and will provide further updates as available.       

Thank you,       

Jim Luther   

Associate Vice President-RCC & Federal Reimbursement

Update: 12/22/18



December 21, 2018 



FROM: Mick Mulvaney Director 

SUBJECT: Status of Agency Operations 

Appropriations provided under the Making Further Continuing Appropriations for Fiscal Year 2019, and for other purposes (P.L. 115-298) expire at 11:59 pm tonight, December 21, 2018. As of December 21st, the only full-year appropriations Acts that have been enacted are the Energy and Water, Legislative Branch, and Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Act, 2019 (Public Law 115-244) and the Department of Defense and Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations Act, 2019 (Public Law 115-245). Because legislation providing fiscal year 2019 appropriations for agencies not funded by those bills expires on December 21, 2018, there will be a lapse for such agencies beginning on December 22, 2018. Unfortunately, the Congress has not taken action to pass an acceptable bill. Therefore, agencies should now execute plans for an orderly shutdown due to the absence of appropriations. 

Although we are hopeful that this lapse in appropriations will be of short duration, employees should report to work for their next regularly scheduled tour of duty to undertake orderly shutdown activities. We will issue another memorandum reopening government functions once the President has signed a bill providing for appropriations. 

Agencies should continue to closely monitor developments, and 0MB will provide further guidance as appropriate. We greatly appreciate your cooperation and the work you and your agencies do on behalf of the American people. 

Update: 12/21/2018

Office of Government Relations: Further Guidance on Pending US Government Shutdown

Dear Colleagues,

The Duke Office of Government Relations is closely monitoring the budget negotiations in Washington to determine the implications of a possible federal government shutdown on Duke and its activities.  If such a shutdown takes place, it will begin midnight December 22, 2018.

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) instructs all federal agencies and congressional offices to prepare and periodically update contingency plans for internal use. The existing “OMB Agency Contingency Plans”, required by law to be updated every two years, are available at:

Our Government Relations team in Durham and Washington, DC, will continue to watch for further developments and communications from the federal agencies, but it is possible that official guidance will not become available until after the shutdown takes place. As information is received, we will share it with members of the Duke community through Duke Today. In the meantime, if you have meetings or events planned with federal officials during the next few weeks or have time-sensitive business (i.e. deadlines), it is recommended that contingency plans be considered before the close of business on Friday, December 21, 2018.

With regard to federal funded sponsored research, a communication has been sent to all grant and business managers from University Finance.  Here are the most critical elements:

–          Federal systems supported or maintained by agencies affected by the shutdown may not be available and/or not fully supported. We expect, a website maintained by the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to remain operational.

–          New awards from agencies affected by the shutdown will likely be held. This includes the Departments of Commerce (includes NOAA), Homeland Security, the National Science Foundation, NASA and the Environmental Protection Agency. Awards from the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defense would not be impacted by the shutdown. 

–          Some federal contracts will be directly impacted and the Contracting Officer may direct you to stop all work; please be on the lookout for communication from your CO and forward to the applicable pre-award office and Nate Martinez-Wayman in the Office of Sponsored Programs.

Following are two publications from OMB and the Congressional Research Service (CRS) regarding federal government shutdowns for your reference.

Shutdown of the Federal Government: Causes, Processes, and Effects (CRS)

Section 124 – Agency Operations in the Absence of Appropriations (OMB)

If you have further questions, I encourage you to contact Jim Luther or Melissa Vetterkind.


Michael Schoenfeld
Vice President for Public Affairs and Government Relations
Duke University

Update: 12/21/2018

Research Administration (Grant and Business Managers),

As you may be aware, it is increasingly likely that funding for approximately twelve federal agencies, including the National Science Foundation and the Department of Homeland Security, will expire at midnight tonight, Friday, December 21, 2018. The House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate have each passed a short-term funding bill, which would provide funding through February 8, 2019; however, these bills contain different funding levels and therefore cannot be signed into law by President Trump.

Agencies funded by this short-term appropriations bill include:

  • NSF, 
  • DHS, 
  • Department of Commerce (including NOAA),
  • the Environmental Protection Agency, and
  • NASA

If a single short-term funding bill is not passed by Congress and signed by the President by midnight, these agencies will largely shut down operations.

Congress had previously provided a full year of appropriations to:

  • Department of Defense
  • Department of Education
  • Department of Energy
  • Department of Health and Human Services (including the National Institutes of Health)

These agencies will not be affected by a lapse in funding and will continue operations.

We will continue to monitor the situation and remain hopeful that there will be a resolution in the coming days; however, I want to take the opportunity to remind you of key issues that may affect Duke University sponsored program activity should a shutdown occur. The breadth of impact will largely be driven by the length of the potential shutdown; if, like previous shutdowns, this lasts just several days, the impact will be minimal. We will continue to evaluate information about the status of the potential shutdown and will provide updates as they become available. 

Specific updates that may be applicable to the grant community are:

Note: these updates are based on communication from OMB and the agencies and are only relevant to those agencies that would have a lapse in fundingThe NIH is not subject to these updates.

1)      Awards: No new awards or NCE’s will be issued during the period of government shutdown.

a.      New appropriations and awards will be delayed.  The length of the delay will be determined by how long the cessation of federal business lasts. 

2)     Federal Systems: GRANTS.GOV will remain open but functioning slow with limited helpdesk and administrative support.  For those agencies that use local electronic systems (not for applications, submission of progress reports, requests for payments, etc., those systems generally will not be available during the shutdown.

3)     Federal Reimbursement of Active Awards: The availability of Letter-of-Credit draws varies by agency, depending on funding status and shutdown plans. As of Friday, December 21, it appears that DHHS/PMS will remain open and unaffected. Per guidance released in September 2018, we anticipate NSF’s Letter-of-Credit system will be unavailable. We will provide further updates if the shutdown continues. Payments on Duke award that are paid through means other than a letter of credit may be delayed due to lack of staffing. Again, this impact will depend on the funding status of the agency in question.

4)     Work should continue on all federal awards; agencies will notify Principal Investigators if work should be stopped or curtailed. However, we do not envision this scenario being commonplace.  If your receive specific sponsor guidance, please notify your pre-award office immediately. 

a.      It is likely that each Contract will receive specific guidance as to whether work can continue or if a stoppage is in effect.  If you manage federal contracts, please work with your faculty and be on the lookout for this, and inform your pre-award office immediately upon any communication.

5)     Please note: We do not anticipate that any federally funded positions at Duke University will be laid off as a result of a short-term shutdown.  Normal work activities should continue.

There has not been significant communication from agencies or OMB on the potential shutdown, but “OMB Agency Contingency Plans” are required by law to be updated every two years, are available here.

Duke’s Office of Governmental Relations is actively watching and managing this issue and will update us accordingly; they have established a page dedicated to this potential shutdown, available here

We anticipate that we will provide our next update on Wednesday, December 26, 2018, as President Trump has declared Monday, December 24, and Tuesday, December 25, federal holidays.

Attached here are FAQs that address a wider array of potential impacts, but if you have further questions, please contact the Office of Sponsored Programs or your applicable pre-award office.


Jim Luther

Associate Vice President-RCC & Federal Reimbursement

Update: 12/18/2018

Notes on Travel and Hiring in case of shutdown

MANAGER MEMO December 18, 2018

TO:  Vice Presidents, Vice Provosts, Deans, Directors, Department Heads, and Managers

FROM:  Kyle Cavanaugh, Vice President for Administration

RE:  Potential Hiring and Travel Impacts During Government Shutdown

In the event of a partial  U.S. Government shutdown on Friday, several federal agencies and services will be temporarily unavailable, including E-verify, which is used to determine the eligibility of new employees to work in the United States. 

During such time, our ability to hire new faculty and staff will continue unabated. Duke will continue to keep a record of I-9 forms for new employees hired during the shutdown. Hiring may continue at Duke during this time. Employees hired during this period will go through the E-verify system once it is reinstated, and any eligibility issues will be addressed at that time.

However, the temporary and permanent labor certification function at the Office of Foreign Labor Certification (OFLC) will cease processing applications entirely, and associated personnel will not be available to respond to inquiries until the office reopens.

In addition, the following agencies would also be affected:

  • U.S. Consulates and Visa Services: International students, scholars and employees travelling internationally and plan to renew or request a new visa while abroad, may encounter delays at the U.S. consulates. The Department of State funding bill has not been passed and consular operations have been subject to prior government shutdowns. Visa issuances and consular interviews likely will be suspended with only very limited (humanitarian emergency) exceptions. We recommend these travelers schedule consular interviews as soon as possible. Travelers with interview dates this week could be delayed in receiving their visas. Appointments after Dec. 21 may be cancelled or seriously delayed.
  • SEVP/SEVIS: The Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) and SEVIS will remain open and functioning because they are fee-funded.
  • Social Security Administration: This agency will not accept or process applications for Social Security numbers or replace cards during a possible shutdown.
  • U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS): USCIS offices and processing will continue to operate normally, because the USCIS is primarily fee-funded.
  • U.S. Customs & Border Protection (CBP): Because of its national security role, CBP services at ports-of-entry by air, sea and land will continue as usual during a shutdown.
  • Department of Labor: Funding was passed for the Department of Labor and unless ordered to shut down, Labor Condition Applications for H-1B Petitions will be processed.

Higher Education Policy in 2019: What to Expect

Capitol building

January 15, 2019

As Congress returned to Washington, D.C. January 3, they returned to the partial government shutdown. This shutdown, now the longest in the nation’s history, results from a fight over funding for a border wall and may portend future funding confrontations and legislative brinksmanship. A divided Congress featuring Democrats in control of the House of Representatives will no doubt increase resistance to some of the Trump Administration’s funding and legislative priorities.

Beyond the early funding focus, the 116th Congress will look at a host of issues of interest to Duke’s research community – such as artificial intelligence and healthcare. Below are highlights of some of the issues directly impacting Duke as an institution and what the Office of Government Relations watches and engages on Duke’s behalf for the first half of 2019.

Budget & Appropriations

Given the partial government shutdown, the start of the FY 2020 budget process will almost certainly be delayed this year. In normal budgeting process, the president’s budget proposal, which is typically released the first Monday in February, begins the funding debate in Congress. The president’s budget request serves more as a wish list than hard demands and the difference in Trump’s requests in 2017 and 2018 and subsequent appropriations levels reflects this paradigm.

For a brief refresher on the federal budget process, please see here. In addition to finding a resolution to the remainder of FY19 appropriations, Congress will need to address the return of the austere budget caps put in place by the 2011 Budget Control Act, with additional pressure on funding levels for the discretionary budget due to the worsening deficit outlook.

Committee Leadership

A new Congress means new committee leadership, particularly in the House with the switch in party control. A listing of some committees of interest to the Duke community and their new leaders, along with committee assignments for the North Carolina delegation and Duke alums serving as Members, will be available in time on the Office of Government Relations website.

Higher Education Act

Upon taking over the House Committee on Education and Labor, Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA 3rd) signaled his interest in pushing through a bipartisan Higher Education Act (HEA) reauthorization. As such, expect various hearings early this year on a variety of topics. Last summer, House Democrats released their Aim Higher Act, which will likely serve as a blueprint this Congress. Former Committee Chair Virginia Foxx (R-NC 5th), now the minority ranking member, won party-line committee approval in the last Congress for her HEA reauthorization bill, the PROSPER Act, but never received floor consideration in the chamber.

As for the Senate, the retirement at the end of this Congress of Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chair Lamar Alexander (R-TN), has renewed urgency to get a reauthorization through before he leaves.

“If anyone can develop and pass a bipartisan reauthorization to the Higher Education Act, it is Senator Alexander. That being said, the divisions are deep and interest in gridlock these days seems to be more important than passing good legislation,” said Associate Vice President Chris Simmons.

Department of Education

Last Nov. 28, 2018, the Department of Education published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in the Federal Register to change the rules guiding Title IX enforcement. The 60-day comment period ends Jan. 28, 2019. The Duke Office of Government Relations is monitoring the situation closely and will keep the Duke community apprised of developments. The policymaking process has just begun and will almost certainly end up in litigation slowing down any final rules from being implemented.

On Dec. 19, 2018, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos delivered an address on “rethinking Higher Education.” The rulemaking process began Monday, Jan. 14. Her guidelines emphasize deregulation, changes to state accreditation and encouraging innovation at the nation’s colleges and universities.

National Security

Members of Congress have signaled interest in drawing attention to the balance between national security and scientific research. We expect more hearings and comments from Members about the importance of securing America’s research infrastructure from malicious international actors while balancing the open system of fundamental research that underpins the nation’s role as a global leader.


Immigration and visa issues will likely thread Congressional debate and proposed rule-making at the agency-level this year. From conversations about securing scientific research and attracting the best and brightest with an attractive visa system to debates on the future of DACA recipients and tension over border security, the argument over who can access the United States to study and teach will remain in the public, the president’s and Congress’ attention for the near future.

Duke Alumni

Duke welcomes one new alum into Congress, Mike Levin (D-CA 49th) L’05. With the retirement of Duke alum Dave Trott (R-MI 11th) L’85, Duke’s total alumni representation in Congress remains at 7.


Of the roughly 1,200 appointed positions in Trump’s Administration requiring Senate confirmation, only 574 people have been nominated and 434 of that number have been confirmed. This includes, as of this writing, Secretary or similar level vacancies for the U.N., Department of Defense, Department of the Interior, Environmental Protection Agency, and Department of Justice.

Through Duke Law Program, Students Help Veterans Access the Benefits they Deserve

Duke Law students volunteer to help under-resourced and homeless veterans with various legal services, including tax preparation and record expungement.

The Duke Law School’s Veterans Assistance Project (VAP) helps veterans access earned benefits. The students in the program aid veterans with diverse backgrounds and subsequently diverse needs. Some veterans live without consistent homes, some live far from Veterans’ Affairs hospitals, some struggle with addiction and substance abuse, and some simply need help understanding a jungle of legal requirements. Putting second- and third-year law students into a program where they can guide claimants through the Veterans’ Affairs process, not only gives veterans access to their dues, it puts the law school to work for the North Carolina community.

The Duke Law Veterans’ Assistance Project most often assists with military discharge upgrade requests and requests to obtain or increase a disability rating. In addition to being unfamiliar with the legal requirements needed to obtain these changes, many veterans left the service long ago and only now need help from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. According to second-year law student and U.S. Army veteran Timothy Dill, one of three Duke Law student program directors, “This [timespan] can make verifying and evaluating their [veterans’] claims difficult, particularly where the veterans no longer have related paperwork.”

The unique nature of the clients means students in this program must undergo training beforehand. In addition to understanding the nature of their relationship to the client and to the supervising attorney, they must remember that the information they ask for is not always the information they need. Dill avidly reminds students to “ask follow-up questions! Clients that are not familiar with claim requirements may not present all of the necessary information in a comprehensive and concise manner, so it is critical to flesh out the details of their service history in order to properly evaluate their claim.”

In addition to veterans who left the service many years ago, the VAP also aims to help veterans working through other adversities such as addiction, disability and homelessness. Trying to connect with a veteran over the phone to learn about their claim is made exponentially more difficult when the veteran does not have their own cell phone. The claims process requires students to understand intimate details of the veteran’s life and to develop a deep level of trust. In order to ensure that a claim is not later dismissed because of the revelation of disparaging information such as a criminal conviction, the student must make sure to know everything about that veteran’s situation.

The students work under a supervising attorney from Legal Aid of North Carolina. Because the students are not barred to practice law in North Carolina, they cannot legally give advice to the client. Instead, they gather details for a claim on behalf of the veteran and suggest a course of action to the supervising attorney who then decides how to go forward and what to advise.

As Dill points out though hiring an attorney is always a theoretical option for veterans, the cost may be prohibitive, particularly for veterans currently not receiving a benefit to which they believe they are entitled. Through our Legal Aid of North Carolina supervising attorney, the Duke Law VAP provides free legal screening, and serves as a gateway to free legal representation for the claims most likely to succeed.”

Because so many of these veterans exist outside the traditional system, the VAP fills a special need. As second-year law student Diana Kim noted “VAP in particular is a way to interact with and serve a smaller subsection of the population that is often pushed aside.” The program at its core acknowledges the plight of veterans and aims to alleviate the adversities they face.

“For those [students] who have no experience or connection with veterans,” Kim added, “the work VAP does gives a deeper understanding of the particular issues that some veterans face.”

This post is part of our Duke in North Carolina Series showcasing Duke’s activities in and in service to local communities, environments, economies and people.
See more here.

On the Hill, Deans Promote Higher Education's Power to Transform Lives

Now in their positions for several months, Deans Judith Kelley of the Sanford School of Public Policy and Toddi Steelman of the Nicholas School of the Environment visited Washington, D.C., Nov. 27 and 29 to share their visions for the future of environmental science and public policy with policymakers and members of the wider Duke community.

The deans each spent a day speaking with Members of Congress and their staff, journalists, and alumni in conversations meant to further one message: Duke advances society. As Duke looks forward to the next era of scholarship and service, Deans Steelman and Kelley urged the D.C. community to conceive of the modern university as a means of collective community improvement.

Kelley spoke at an evening alumni event Nov. 27 with Amy Hepburn, Felsman Fellowships Adjunct Faculty at the Sanford School, about Kelley’s personal story and her path to Duke. As an immigrant who received financial aid to attend a California community college, Kelley spoke to the ability of college and graduate education to be a transformative experience – both in one’s perspective on life and one’s professional opportunities.

Sanford Dean Judith Kelley, in conversation with Amy Hepburn, discusses her vision for the school during a session with Duke alumni. Photo by Colin Colter
Sanford Dean Judith Kelley, in conversation with Amy Hepburn, discusses her vision for the school during a session with Duke alumni. Photo by Colin Colter

Steelman spent much of her day Nov. 29 on Capitol Hill meeting congressional representatives and their staff to discuss the role of environmental science in policy-making. Steelman emphasized the importance of sustainable jobs and how she is more than “just an environmentalist.”

As a compliment to that idea, she shared how the Duke Marine Lab is now fully recovered from its Hurricane Florence damage.

“The value [of the Duke Marine Lab] is threefold” said Steelman in an end-of-day interview with Duke in DC staff. “We are good neighbors who volunteer in the community, as we have with our efforts with the Boys and Girls Clubs in the region; we demonstrate and practice resilient co-existence in how to live in this complex land and sea-scape; and we are doing cutting-edge research to learn about our changing biophysical and social environments during a time of changing climate.”

Steelman also shared that image of sustainable, environmentally responsible coexistence with a roomful of university alumni later that evening Nov. 29 when the Duke Alumni Association regional office hosted her for an event. The conversation focused on the importance of retaining environmental determinants in current policy-making.

Cadets on Campus: The Life of an ROTC Student at Duke

by Amy Kramer, T’18

There’s something special about the bond you forge with your peers while doing pushups in the rain at 5:50 a.m. It’s akin to walking through the Pentagon and being stopped by every Duke alum wanting to reminisce about how great it is to be a Blue Devil. We’re proud to be at Duke, a campus that embraces the military and provides plenty of opportunities for professional growth within the national security space.

Cadet Life

On Thursday afternoons, amidst a sea of Duke blue, it is not hard to spot some camouflage passing in front of the chapel on Abele Quad. In uniform only on the days when ROTC labs are scheduled, Duke ROTC Cadets balance one desert-sand-colored boot in the military world, and one Birkenstock in the civilian one. Putting down rubber M4 rifles and picking up musical instruments, or swapping camo for brightly-colored dance team uniforms, cadets transition with ease and become more committed civic leaders in all their ventures across campus.

Opportunities for ROTC Cadets vary by department. Army Cadets each year participate in field training exercises at Camp Butner and Fort Bragg, attend a staff ride, and visit Washington D.C. to learn about military and national security policy. Air Force Cadets can participate in professional development training, national defense education and community service through the Arnold Air Society Program. Navy Cadets shadow enlisted sailors and junior officers on ships, subs or aviation squadrons. Navy Cadets also participate in a Capitol Leadership Conference each fall, through which they engage with Navy leaders in D.C.

All cadets can earn scholarships, shadow different specialties assigned to a base or pursue advanced critical language study such as Chinese, Arabic or Farsi. Most importantly, ROTC classes are open to all Duke students and no experience is required. If you have an interest in the structure or function of any of the service branches, or want to augment your Trinity College curriculum with a military history or military policy course, you are encouraged to do so.

Civilian Blue Devils

But opportunities for students to engage with military and policy leaders extend far beyond ROTC on-campus programming. Duke’s close proximity to both Fort Bragg and Washington, D.C. means that Cadets and civilians alike have access to military and national security education beyond the classroom.

The Duke Program in American Grand Strategy (AGS) is one example. Duke leveraged distinctive strengths in political science and public policy to create this signature program for students interested in national security policymaking. The mission is to raise the next generation of leaders by studying current strategists and scholars. Through the AGS program, students have access to advanced seminars, a distinguished speaker series, research and publication opportunities, summer fellowships and experiential education trips.

Duke is one of a few civilian institutions in the country that hosts annual staff rides – military history trips first conducted by the Prussians in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars. Blue Devils continue the tradition by adopting historic roles and studying past battles more deeply and intimately than is possible in a traditional classroom lecture. By studying past leaders, students understand not just the events that transpired, but the reasons why decisions were made. Students learn empathy and the value of varying perspectives in understanding past events and how they fit into the broader geopolitical context.
Recent staff rides hosted by the American Grand Strategy Program have included Normandy (WW2), Grenada (1983 Operation Urgent Fury), Vietnam (1968 Tet Offensive) and most recently WW1 (Hundred Days Offensive).

Many of these national security education programs are specifically oriented towards civilians in order to increase familiarity and understanding of the military, even though many Cadets also participate. For example, each year, civilians visit a Navy SEALs base and the Special Forces Operations Center at Fort Bragg. Duke is also one of the only universities to host War College Fellows through the Counterterrorism and Public Policy Fellowship Program. These advanced military officers, usually Lieutenant Colonels and Colonels, spend a year on campus taking classes with students. Building relationships with these distinguished military officers is one of the best ways for Duke students to engage with the military.

National security studies would be incomplete without courses in intelligence. The Triangle Institute of Security Studies combines the strengths of Duke University, UNC Chapel Hill, North Carolina State University and North Carolina Central University. Through this collaborative program, students may pursue a certificate in national intelligence, travel to Oak Ridge National Laboratory, tour various national intelligence agencies, participate in the Annual Colloquium and Simulation and present senior theses to national security scholars. This four-year program thrives on cross-campus engagement and aims to contribute towards a more informed citizenry.

From Policy to Practice

Understanding that the future of national security requires more than just a background in political science, Duke tech-oriented students are encouraged to join the Duke Cyber Team. Sponsored by AGS and coached by an executive from the NSA, the Duke Cyber Team studies emerging cyber threats through weekly expert briefings from experts in industry, intelligence and academia. It also educates the Duke community on cutting-edge cyber issues and participates in the national Atlantic Council Cyber 9/12 Competition, competing and networking with cyber professionals in DC each year. Additionally, the Duke Center on Law, Ethics, and National Security at the Duke Law School hosts the LENS Conference, attracting military and national security leaders to campus to engage with students on the complexity of cyber security and cyber operations.

One of the most public and well-received national security events on campus in recent years was the “Crisis Near Fiery Cross Reef” Winter Forum. In this comprehensive three-day South China Sea crisis simulation, Duke undergrads made high-stakes decisions in real time in a scenario in which a US Navy ship was attacked, sparking an international crisis. The goal, as articulated by Tim Nichols, one of the Winter Forum directors, was to “expose a broader slice of Duke to the relevant issues and thought processes around national security decision making.” This exposure is only one of the many special facets of the Duke experience for students interested in national security.

Five Questions with Tommy Sowers

Duke University’s growing connection with the military comes through its student body, faculty and staff and can be found in the classroom and in research. With the establishment of a regional office for MD5, the Pentagon’s national security technology accelerator, in Durham this summer and the kickoff of its Hacking for Defense (H4D) program at Duke in Spring 2019, Duke students and faculty have new avenues to work with Defense Department officials to develop their most pressing national security need: innovation.

The Office of Government Relations recently spoke with Tommy Sowers, Southeast Regional Director of MD5 and visiting professor at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy. He discussed the Hacking for Defense project and the next generation of American innovation superiority.

1) What is Hacking for Defense?
Hacking for Defense teaches students how to build a startup to solve a national security problem. It is a semester-long graduate-level university course designed to introduce students to the lean launchpad methodology for entrepreneurship and to apply what they learn to real-world national security problems. First introduced at Stanford, the course was co-created by Steve Blank and Peter Newell. It is grounded in the customer development methodology created by Blank and problem-curation techniques Newell devised when he was head of the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force. Student teams form around national security problem statements procured for the course from Department of Defense problem sponsors.

More than 25 universities have adopted the course since it launched in 2016. Teams develop a hypothesis for a solution to the sponsor’s problem and then test their hypothesis in customer interviews. They spend much of the course articulating, testing and refining their hypothesis. The culmination of the course involves presenting the results of the student team’s testing of the solution hypothesis during 100-plus customer interviews. Students learn a systematic approach to practical problem-solving in the context of product/solution development. Department of Defense problem sponsors benefit from the application of new ways of thinking brought to bear from some of our nation’s brightest young minds.

2) What is MD5 and why did the Pentagon decide to open a regional office in Durham?

MD5 is a program office out of the Office of the Secretary of Defense and is an innovation organization whose purpose is to build new communities of innovators to solve urgent problems of national security. We are building a network of problem-solvers from the communities of the Department of Defense, the nation’s top research universities and the venture economy. Our fundamental premise is that technological superiority alone is not an adequate strategy to maintaining our competitive posture and preparedness in the context of the democratization of technology and intellectual property.

We believe that the Department of Defense needs to have access to a persistent problem-solving resource that is characterized by a cognitive diversity and agility not presently available within DOD alone. Our national strategy for building these new communities is prosecuted at the national level via institutional partnerships with major research universities such as MIT, Columbia, CU Boulder, UC Berkeley, Stanford and most lately at Duke.

“Enlisting the ingenuity and fresh perspectives of those in academia is vital to maintaining advantage for those defending our nation.”
— Tommy Sowers

The Triangle area is rich in talent and offers access to one of the nation’s burgeoning entrepreneurial ecosystems alongside world-class public and private research universities. It is also a target-rich environment for building and connecting new communities of innovators. The military is North Carolina’s second largest industry (just behind agriculture), and we have found a very receptive environment amongst the state’s public leadership.

3) What are some of the biggest innovation challenges facing the Pentagon?

The problems facing the Department of Defense are myriad, and have areas of increasing overlap with the innovation challenges faced by commercial enterprise more broadly. Technological innovation in areas such as cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, robotics and advanced logistics have application not only to defense problems but have commercial value as well. This is why we are strong advocates of both dual-use technology strategies (products and solutions that can equally serve commercial and defense markets) and the development of dual-use startup ventures. Startups represent a powerful model for problem-solving that offer speed, agility and the efficient consumption of resources.

However, the most important challenge facing the Department of Defense is its need to reliably and productively connect with non-traditional problem solvers. There was a time when the DOD could sufficiently direct the resources necessary to maintaining a competitive posture with its peers and adversaries. However, both the diffusion of talent into the entrepreneurial sector of the economy and the innovativeness and agility of adversaries unconstrained by rule of law and institutional norms have fundamentally altered the terrain of national security. The most important challenge facing the DOD, therefore, is to build a persistent problem-solving network that can sustainably meet the challenges that are generated by conditions of global uncertainty.

“If we intend to build a strong and sustainable national security innovation base, collaborating with those beyond the ‘walls’ of the DOD isn’t a nice-to-have, it’s a need-to-have.”
— Tommy Sowers

4) Besides H4D, what are ways in which academia can collaborate with and/or support the mission of MD5?

The other major program through which we engage with universities, their students and faculties, are our hackathons. These are three-day long “collision” events, which are organized around a challenge statement. Recent examples include developing techniques to counter the malicious use of drones and the problems confronted by those who maintain critical infrastructure and must guard against vulnerability to cyber-attacks.

The hackathon events are often staged on university campuses or in partnership with relevant university departments and seek to draw on university student talent. These events also provide opportunity for the university community to engage with innovators in the Department of Defense as well as those from industry and the entrepreneurial sector.

5) What advice would you give Duke students interested in engaging on national security issues, and what advice would you give Pentagon officials interested in engaging universities and university students on national security issues?

We advise Duke students to approach the opportunity to work on national security problems with an open mind. We consistently find that students find not only a sense of challenge in these collaboration opportunities, but also a sense of purpose in solving problems that can have lifesaving importance.

To those in DOD, we suggest that enlisting the ingenuity and fresh perspectives of those in academia is vital to maintaining advantage for those defending our nation. If we intend to build a strong and sustainable national security innovation base, collaborating with those beyond the “walls” of the DOD isn’t a nice-to-have, it’s a need-to-have.

Crisis at the WTO and the Future of Trade Dispute Resolution

The future of international trade rests on the future of trade dispute resolution, argued the Jeffrey and Bettysue Hughes Professor of Law Rachel Brewster, Ph.D. yesterday, Oct. 18 at a congressional briefing on Capitol Hill. In detailing the World Trade Organization’s dispute settlement structure, Brewster honed in on the mechanism American trade policy specialists once cared about more than any other: the Appellate Body.

To a room full of congressional staff whose work involves trade issues, Brewster laid out the growing crisis of the WTO. The seven-member Appellate Body is down to thee current members (sometimes casually referred to as ‘judges’) and the United States is blocking the appointment or re-appointment of all new members until reforms are made to the body. However, the United States has yet to lay out the specifics of those demands.

By Dec. 2019, the Appellate body will be unable to hear any cases and will halt all international trade dispute hearings.

Brewster detailed the current debate around WTO appellate body structure. Some policymakers within the Trump administration have mentioned discomfort with the WTO’s Rule 15, or how the Appellate Body makes decisions along a timeline. They have also mentioned concern that the Appellate Body is deciding issues of law that are not strictly necessary to resolving cases at hand.

Some experts outside the administration argue that stonewalling the renewal of the Appellate Body is part of a greater strategy to move away from transparent, rules-based trade practices in favor of using market power to settle trade disputes.

The United States is the country that first wanted a trade dispute settlement body. This WTO pseudo-court, argued Brewster, gives legitimacy to American international trade law and allows for a clear, accessible rules-based international system that mirrors many aspects of U.S. appellate court practice. The original Uruguay Round treaty of 1995 that created the WTO also allowed for transparent, timely and decisive ends to trade disputes that would otherwise drag on indefinitely, argued Brewster.

Without the WTO’s Appellate Body, international trade disputes would return to the pre-1995 General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) status quo. Previously, states bounced differing interpretations of international trade law back and forth – sometimes for years –in the hopes of negotiating a resolution.

A dysfunctional WTO also creates uncertainty for businesses trying to navigate international landscapes and might enable other countries to act against free market interests. Arguments in favor of keeping some form of the Appellate Body focus not just on the fact that the United States wins a majority of cases it brings (87%), but also on the implications of writing transparent rules for how countries interact with each other.

The Defense Innovation Board and the Ethics of A.I.

Current debates around artificial intelligence promise much but define little. This past Wednesday, Oct. 10, the Defense Innovation Board held an open hearing on the best, most ethical way to incorporate AI into the battle space and into Department of Defense daily operations. One idea kept resurfacing: the meaning of intelligence.

Having committed to the recently vogue world of machine learning, the Department of Defense faces a daunting task optimizing, accessing and streamlining millions of users and apps and thousands of software systems, many of them mission critical.

Duke University Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science Mary “Missy” Cummings recently joined the board and quickly offered suggestions on the best way to frame machine learning systems.

Drawing from her research on autonomous systems, she spoke about the fallacy in thinking that computers lack human bias. Humans must code the system, select data, select testing facilities, select participants and much else. Humans design the entire world in which one builds an autonomous system.

But the DoD should take more from this example. It is not enough to say that machines carry their creator’s bias. Cummings rightly posited that patterns in a code or statistic do not themselves own objective truth.

The most important part of any machine learning system will still be the human interacting with it. The next generation warfighter will not just face kinetic threats on the battlefield, but also the heuristics of a machine meant to help them.

Congress Faces a Long To-Do List this Legislative Season



September 6, 2018

Although on campus September begins the new year, it is the last month for Congress to accomplish anything before midterm elections. This past year saw a massive topline budget deal struck between the two parties, short-term government shutdown this spring and various court cases pertaining to immigration. Fall 2018 shows no signs of slowing down. With the midterm elections in November, continued immigration litigation, a threatened government shutdown and, of course, confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee, Judge Brett Kavanaugh Congress faces a long to-do list this legislative season.


In August, the Senate passed an $857 billion FY19 minibus-spending package that funds the departments of Defense, Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education. Before leaving for the month-long August recess, the House passed six of their 12 appropriations bills; the Senate passed nine. To hash out differences, the House and Senate began a conference meeting this week for the FY19 minibus-spending package that funds Energy, Nuclear Security, Veterans’ Affairs and Congressional operations. Initial negotiations are also underway for the package that contains the Defense and Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education bills. No spending bills have made it to President Trump’s desk for signature.

The Association of American Universities (AAU) has a chart illustrating the current state of appropriations, both in terms of funding levels and legislative progress. The prospects for federal research and education programs are positive as both House and Senate bills include increased funding above the Administration’s request.

Two salient examples can be found in NEH and ARPA-E, both of which the administration’s budget request proposed for elimination. The House not only funded both, and in the case of NEH, at a record high level, but also defeated attempts to defund the programs during floor consideration. Every Republican Member of the North Carolina delegation voted in favor of amendments to defund those two programs. Despite the momentum this spring and summer for developing bills that contain positive funding recommendations, Congress faces a deadline to pass the final compromise funding packages or a continuing resolution to fund the government by the end of this month. President Trump suggested he might shut down the government in order to secure funding for his border wall, but Republicans on the Hill have yet to echo that interest.

Congress also spotlighted alleged academic espionage at universities through hearings and various legislative proposals this summer. Most prominent was the so-called Gallagher amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, which attempted to limit funding to researchers participating in foreign talent recruitment programs. Thanks to efforts from the higher education community, that amendment was replaced with language in the final National Defense Authorization Act that creates a forum for universities to engage with DOD and other security agencies to discuss effective ways in which to address issues involving national security.

The Higher Education Act

The House GOP’s rewrite of the Higher Education Act, dubbed the PROSPER Act has hit a legislative wall. Chairwoman Virginia Foxx (R-NC) pushed her bill through committee last fall in the hopes of speeding its passage, but the bill has yet to be called for consideration on the House floor due to lack of support amongst Republican members. Duke opposes the bill because of its significant changes to federal student loan programs that would drastically limit access to higher education, particularly for graduate and professional students.

Stuck in the Courts

The only part of government moving slower than Congress is the courts with net neutrality and the DACA program still in legal limbo.

Net Neutrality

In December 2017 Republican FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai ended the 2015 net neutrality rule that ordered internet service providers treat all content flowing through their cables and cell towers equally. In May 2018, the Senate voted in favor of a bill to overturn the FCC decision through the Congressional Review Act, but the House has yet to act on the measure. The FCC ruling went into effect this past June, but is being contested in the courts. AAU recently authored an amicus brief supporting net neutrality for one of the cases.

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals

So far, six federal courts have heard DACA-related cases with two decisions ordering the government to keep the program going despite proposals to end it earlier this year. Friday, Aug. 17, D.C.-based District Judge John Bates walked back his demand that the Trump administration accept new DACA applications. However, this order does not interfere with previous decisions that the Trump administration continue processing existing DACA renewals.

In a suit filed by Texas and six other conservative states, a federal judge declined to order the government to end the DACA program citing the states’ inability to prove that the DACA program caused them “irreparable harm.” The judge questioned the legality of DACA but argued that DACA recipients would face more harm if they lost the program.

This ruling means the Trump administration must resume accepting renewals for the existing 700,000 DACA recipients, perhaps until June 2019 when the Supreme Court may weigh in.

Duke supports the right of DACA students and colleagues to stay in the United States and to continue their studies and contribute to our communities and the economy.

National Security

Another area of immigration under additional scrutiny is Congressional concern with international student and researcher roles in alleged breaches of national security and the loss of intellectual property. In light of these concerns, additional vetting of visa applicants is likely in the coming months.

National Quantum Initiative

Congress worked through the summer to bring the National Quantum Initiative into existence. The administration also elevated quantum information sciences to priority status through their inclusion in the FY 2020 R&D budget priorities memo sent to agencies in late July. The National Quantum Initiative Act coordinates a federal program to accelerate quantum research and development for the economic and national security of the United States. Duke has been a key stakeholder in this process and will continue to work closely with peer institutions as this proposal moves through Congress.

Fall 2018

Fall 2018 proves to be a challenging season for Congress. As they veer towards a fiscal dead-end and avoid overly distracting issues before the midterm elections, the Duke Office of Government Relations will continue to keep you updated on important legislative matters.
For more regular updates sign-up for our twice-weekly newsletter detailing important federal policy updates and follow us on Twitter @DukeinDC.

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