US should do more to keep AI lead: Experts

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.

For now, the United States is well ahead of China in the development of AI - 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," Mr 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 Ms Helen Toner, director of strategy for the new Centre for Security and Emerging Technology at Georgetown University in Washington. She was one of the experts briefing the USCC.

Fifty-nine per cent of those who hold PhDs in computer sciences and 51 per cent of master's degree holders in the US 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 challenge for the US is supporting AI development, in which it is outspent by China.

Amid dire predictions 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, to support the 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 US$9.33 billion (S$12.7 billion), Forbes reported in February.

Last month, Energy Secretary Rick Perry announced a partnership with Cray and Advanced Micro Devices to build the world's fastest computer.

Accordingly, US lawmakers are 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," said vice-chair of the USCC Robin Cleveland.

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

Nirmal Ghosh

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 09, 2019, with the headline 'US should do more to keep AI lead: Experts'. Print Edition | Subscribe