Former Google chief: US spending key to winning AI race against China

By on 03/09/2020 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Schmidt: “If we don’t act now, in 10 or 20 years we’ll say: ‘How could we have missed this?’.” (Cropped version of a photo by Guillaume Paumier via Wikimedia Commons).

Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt has said the US government must pour more funding into artificial intelligence (AI) research if it is to avert Chinese dominance in the field.

Speaking during an online event hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) think tank last Tuesday, Schmidt warned that the US is losing the AI race. “China is on its way to surpass [the US] in many, many ways,” he said. “We need to take them seriously… they’re going to end up with a bigger economy, more R&D investments, better quality research, wider applications of technology, and a stronger computing infrastructure.”

Schmidt, who is chair of the US defence department’s Defense Innovation Advisory Board, described China’s potential dominance in AI as a security threat that could lead to “high-tech authoritarianism” worldwide. “If we don’t act now, in 10 or 20 years we’ll say: ‘How could we have missed this?’,” he said.

To counter the Chinese, the US government must agree a long-term AI plan and double its current R&D spending over the next five years, he argued. This chimes with the recommendations of a recent BPC white paper, which called for the federal government to increase AI R&D spending to an annual total of US$25bn by 2025.

In February, the White House said that it would increase non-military AI research spending to US$2bn annually by 2022, and on Wednesday it announced US$1bn in funding to establish 12 new research institutes focused on AI and quantum computing. In total, the US invests 0.7% of GDP in scientific R&D funding which, according to Schmidt, is the lowest percentage since “before Sputnik” in the 1960s.  

By contrast to the US’s spending plans, China’s state council has pledged US$1.4tn to boost key technologies, including AI.

Staying ahead through innovation

Schmidt’s hope is that additional funding would spur US universities and other research institutes to develop technologies that eventually turn into world-changing products. Pure innovation, he argued, is the best way for the US to stay ahead of China and other countries, instead of issuing bans and tariffs on imported tech. “It’s always better to run faster than your competitors and leave them behind, rather than all of the other strategies,” he said.

During the webcast, he also pointed out that China’s form of government lends itself to large, top-down initiatives. “The Chinese model is… a vision of high-tech authoritarianism which is incompatible with the way America works,” he said. “I’m not saluting it, I’m not endorsing it in any way, but I’m telling you to take it seriously… it has benefits from the standpoint of the strategic execution.”

China’s ambition to overtake the US as the world’s AI frontrunner is part of its Belt and Road initiative, announced in 2013, to rival the US as an economic superpower.

Global AI partnership

In May this year, the US reversed its decision not to join the Global Partnership on AI – an international alliance dedicated to the responsible adoption of AI – with key administration figures having apparently concluded that refusing to participate would allow China to wield too much influence in the group. The US had initially objected to the partnership’s approach, arguing that too much focus on regulation would hamper US innovation.

The White House’s chief technology officer, Michael Kratsios, said that the US wants to establish shared democratic principles as a basis for the development of AI, countering China’s record of “twisting technology” in ways that threaten civil liberties. He added in a statement that the US had joined with G7 countries “to strengthen our science and technology collaboration, setting the stage for accelerated scientific discovery and strong economic growth”.

A plan in the works?

Last week, two US representatives, Will Hurd and Robin Kelly, announced that they intend to introduce a congressional resolution on AI this month that would “identify the need for a comprehensive strategy” and lay out a vision for the government’s role in AI development.  

The resolution would propose four pillars – workforce, national security, R&D, and ethics – with a view to turning recommendations on each pillar from the BPC, the Center for New American Security, and the Center for Security and Emerging Security into legislation.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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