USA is in danger of squandering the AI race to China, House report warns

Jerry Bowles Profile picture for user jbowles September 25, 2018
The U.S. cannot take its lead in AI technologies for granted. The government needs to significantly step up its leadership and investment in AI if it is going be the world’s dominant player, a new Congressional report says.

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Without more leadership from Congress and the President, the U.S. is in serious danger of losing the economic and military rewards of artificial intelligence (AI) to China. That’s the somber conclusion of a report published today (September 25) by the House Oversight and Reform IT subcommittee.

In Rise of the Machines: Artificial Intelligence and its Growing Impact on U.S. Policy, subcommittee chairman Will Hurd and ranking member Robin Kelly—lay out the stakes in stark terms:

Whoever masters AI will have an outsize role

The report says the nation with the strongest AI program will achieve a more efficient economy and improve decision-making in every industry. On the downside, it will also be able to build autonomous weapons, launch devastating cyber attacks, and drive supercharged disinformation and propaganda campaigns. First movers will set the future norms and standards for its use. The report noted:

Particularly concerning is the prospect of an authoritarian country, such as Russia or China, overtaking the United States in AI. As the Subcommittee’s hearings showed, AI is likely to have a significant impact in cybersecurity, and American competitiveness in AI will be critical to ensuring the United States does not lose any decisive cybersecurity advantage to other nation states.

The loss of American leadership in AI could also pose a risk to ensuring any potential use of AI in weapons systems by nation-states comports with international humanitarian laws. In general, authoritarian regimes like Russia and China have not been focused on the ethical implications of AI in warfare, and will likely not have guidelines against more bellicose uses of AI, such as in autonomous weapons systems.

The United States’ competitiveness in AI is also critical to its economic security, as AI is poised to be a key driver of economic growth. AI applications promise to make industry more efficient—cutting down costs, limiting the use of natural resources, and improving the use of finite resources such as “the increasingly crowded electromagnetic spectrum."

The China Effect

The U.S. has traditionally led the world in the development and application of AI-driven technologies, due in part to the government’s commitment to investing heavily in research and development. That has, in turn, helped support AI’s growth and development. In 2015, the United States led the world in total gross domestic R&D expenditures, spending $497 billion.

But, since then, neither Congress nor the Trump administration has paid much attention to AI and government R&D investment has been essentially flat.

Meanwhile, China has made AI a key part of its formal economic plans for the future. The report noted:

China’s commitment to funding R&D has been growing sharply, up 200 percent from 2000 to 2015. On February 7, 2018, the National Science Board’s (Board) and the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Director, who jointly head NSF, said in a statement that if current trends continue, the Board expects ‘China to pass the United States in R&D investments’ by the end of 2018.

One bright spot. Last month, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced the creation of the Artificial Intelligence Exploration program, “AI Next,” to bolster the United States’ leadership in AI. DARPA plans to invest more than $2 billion into this program and other existing programs. The program focuses research on “‘third wave’ AI theory and application that will make it possible for machines to contextually adapt to changing situations.”

What needs to be done?

The report, which is light on specifics, offers four key recommendations:

  • More funding for R&D through agencies like the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, DARPA, and NASA.
  • Publishing government data sets, a potential boon for training AI. The report encourages the Senate to pass the OPEN Government Data Act (OGDA), which the House passed unanimously last year. OGDA would allow for all non-sensitive government data to be made freely available and accessible to the public.
  • Developing standards for measuring the progress and dangers of AI by supporting public, academic and private sector efforts in the development of standards for measuring the safety and security of AI products and applications.
  • More DARPA Grand Challenges, like the one that motivated much of the early work on autonomous driving.

The bottom line, according to the report:

There is a pressing need for conscious, direct, and spirited leadership from the Trump Administration. The 2016 reports put out by the Obama Administration’s National Science and Technology Council and the recent actions of the Trump Administration are steps in the right direction. However, given the actions taken by other countries—especially China— Congress and the Administration will need to increase the time, attention, and level of resources the federal government devotes to AI research and development, as well as push for agencies to further build their capacities for adapting to advanced technologies.

My take

In its current stage of development, AI is still rudimentary stage but—as we wrote here recently—that perception is deceptive. As progress accelerates, some countries and companies may find themselves out of the game before they realize that it’s too late to catch up. Given the economic and military stakes and the all-in commitment by China, the U.S. government’s seeming absence of urgency seemed extremely short-sighted.

The Trump administration’s relationship with the high tech industry began in a promising way with many Silicon Valley poohbahs making a visit to the White House and agreeing to serve on a Technology Council and the President’s son-in-law Jared Kushner opening an Office of American Innovation to capture the best ideas.

That relationship is more complicated now, with several tech leaders leaving the council because of policy differences and young Mr. Kushner getting bogged down in various scandals of his own. In the meantime, the Facebook/Cambridge Analytics scandal, charges of bias in the selection of content on Google and Facebook and Twitter, and the simple reality that many—probably most—executives and employees in the tech industry have liberal leanings, has allowed Conservatives to portray the biggest players as somehow in collusion to destroy the Trump administration. Very bright, very rich, possibly spoiled, very white--and they are all very bright, very rich, possibly spoiled, very white—make very easy political foils.

On the other hand, it may turn out that whatever the U.S. administration chooses to do is fruitless and pointless because China is educating computer science graduates at a scale against which the U.S. cannot hope to compete.

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