With China in rear-view mirror, US lawmakers worry about maintaining lead in AI

For now the US is well ahead of China in development of AI technology. But to maintain the edge it must do more to support AI research, and it should also remain open to global talent, experts said.
For now the US is well ahead of China in development of AI technology. But to maintain the edge it must do more to support AI research, and it should also remain open to global talent, experts said.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON - American universities and corporations are in danger of becoming unwilling partners in dual civil-military use of artificial intelligence (AI) technology by the Chinese government, a Congressional Commission hearing was told on Friday (June 7).

For now, the United States is well ahead of China in development of AI technology - essentially, technology that enables machines to learn like humans, and apply what they learn.

But to maintain the edge, it must do more to support AI research, and it should also remain open to global talent, experts told the US-China Economic and Security and Review Commission (USCC).

"Human talent may be the most valuable input into a nation's AI system," Jeffrey Ding, a researcher at the Centre for the Governance of AI at Oxford University, told the commission. And the US has by far the most talent in that area.

"The talent is ours to lose," warned Helen Toner, director of strategy for a new Centre for Security and Emerging Technology at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, who was one of the experts briefing the USCC.

Fifty nine per cent of PhDs in computer sciences and 51 per cent of master's degree holders in the United States were born abroad, she said.

"Many of these workers came to the United States as international students, who disproportionately prefer to stay in the United States. More than 85 per cent of Chinese and Indian students in US computer science and engineering PhD programmes state that they intend to stay after graduation," she said.

"Far from actively stepping up efforts to draw top foreign talent to its shores, recent changes in the US immigration environment are actively undermining this historical - and critical - strength."


"US action or inaction that restricts the flow of top-tier research talent from China is a dream come true for the Chinese government."

The second crucial challenge for the US is to support AI development, in which it is being out-spent by China.

Amid dire predictions from industry and analysts that China is about to leapfrog the US in AI, President Donald Trump created an "American AI Initiative" via an executive order in February, designed to boost federal spending across industry and academia, in support of development of AI technology.

Opinion on this is divided. Critics say the initiative lacks mechanisms and funding. But analysts also say there is plenty of money being raised for AI anyway.

AI start-ups in America had their best year yet last year, raising a record $9.33 billion, Forbes reported in February. In May, Energy Secretary Rick Perry announced a partnership with Cray and Advanced Micro Devices to build the world's fastest computer.

Accordingly, US lawmakers are grappling with trying to understand what needs to be done to maintain America's lead.

"Research and collaboration ostensibly conducted by the civilian sector can be made freely deployable by the Chinese government's military," vice-chair of the USCC, Dr Robin Cleveland, said.

"The stakes are high," said Ms Thea Lee, an expert on US-China trade with the Economic Policy Institute, who co-chaired the day-long hearing.

"Continued US tech leadership is not guaranteed. The systematic and policy-driven efforts of the Chinese government to secure a decisive advantage in these technologies present a significant threat."


China's government is implementing a plan to become the global leader in AI by 2030, and is already applying AI to a range of problems that challenge "US interests and values", she said.

Likewise, China's material science had benefited tremendously from a combination of state support and inflow of talent educated in the United States.

"China stands poised to commercialise many discoveries made by US laboratories at the expense of US manufacturers, funded at least in part by US taxpayers," Ms Lee said.

Former US senator James Talent, appointed to the USCC by Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, said: "A central problem here is that one of the tremendous strengths of America's scientific or national security innovation base in general… is the openness of the system, the fact that networks and players coordinate freely."

The question was how to protect the openness of the system while also protecting the technology, he said.

"We do need to be conscious of a serious risk of the regime (China) letting us develop all this foundational technology and stealing it... (but) if we try and stop that with measures that are not carefully enough directed we could end up shutting down our research itself."