'America First' endangers American tech leadership

'America First' endangers American tech leadership
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The slashes in the President’s budget to science, education, and safety net funding up against the additional billions for a border wall with Mexico, are the most recent example of how the “America First” agenda has us hunkering down in ways that will actually undermine America’s future prosperity and leadership. 

The President’s budget proposes $1 billion in cuts to the National Science Foundation, and $5 billion to the National Institutes of Health while finding over $8 billion for wall construction and increasing defense spending beyond what military leaders requested. Research on climate change science would drop by two-thirds; Department of Education funding and the social safety net would be slashed. And the administration has failed to respond to calls for ethical guidelines on emerging AI technologies from academics, civil society, and even several tech companies.

All this despite a recent executive order acknowledging that U.S. leadership in new artificial intelligence technology is “of paramount importance” to our economic and national security and threatens to undermine our values.

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Meanwhile, the Chinese government is investing tens of billions of dollars in its effort to catch up with and surpass the U.S. in advanced technology. Chinese Internet companies Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent are building new research centers and hiring abroad — including in Silicon Valley itself — while the government continues to subsidize exports and permit trade secret theft. So far, this strategy seems to be working. China now produces more science and engineering degrees and scientific publications than the U.S. and is home to the most AI start-ups valued at U.S.$1 billion or above.

And technology is advancing with little in the way of labor-force preparation or ethical guidelines. AI especially holds enormous promise in critical areas like health and the climate, but will increase dislocation and pose risks to democratic values. Algorithms can result in biased decision-making when trained by data sets that reflect past discrimination. Facial recognition technology — one of the fastest growing uses of AI — is already deployed around the world, including by law enforcement, despite these challenges. China is using AI for mass social control and selling it to other countries for similar uses. Even more automatized disinformation is likely with AI-enabled fakes — including of video and audio.

When Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE were called to mobilize the country to race the Soviet Union to the moon, they increased science funding, introduced physics to high school curricula, invested in infrastructure, and stepped-up foreign language training. The result was not just the Apollo program but a host of innovations that enhanced prosperity and security. And at the same time the U.S. was investing at home, it worked with allies — however imperfectly — to strengthen NATO, create the system that sets the rules for global trade, protect human rights, and contain nuclear proliferation. 

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It’s not too late for the U.S. to maintain technology leadership and help set ethical guardrails on the new technology, but it can’t be achieved if the U.S. chooses instead to wall ourselves off America First-style. Instead of underfunding needed investments in the budget — already depleted by the tax cut — we should be increasing spending on scientific research, STEM education, and job training programs, while building a stronger safety net so that more Americans left behind from the last wave of disruption can be risk takers in the new economy.

It’s time to lead in developing and enforcing an international framework for the ethical use of new technologies, and the terms of international competition — a role we played through the early days of the Internet.

We will need to work with allies to combat China’s trade and cyber-security practices. And we should construct a framework to provide legal clarity on what are impermissible uses — barring unlawful discrimination, respecting privacy, and protecting civil liberties. 

Technical expertise and standards for evaluating and securing AI systems must be strengthened. Such a framework should be developed in cooperation with stakeholders and foreign allies who are then willing to join us in promoting it around the globe.

Our economic strategy can’t be turning away immigrants and foreign visitors — even H-1B visas for highly-skilled workers are difficult to get and the travel ban shuts out scientists from a number of Muslim-majority countries. Traditionally, the attractiveness of the U.S. to immigrants has been an asset: nearly half of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or the children of immigrants. 

The Administration’s embrace of a go-it-alone agenda is increasingly undermining our ability to maintain our global edge. It is only through investing in the future and engaging with the world that we can maintain leadership and strengthen democratic values in the coming technological era. 

Karen Kornbluh is Senior Fellow and Director of the Digital Innovation & Democracy Initiative at the German Marshall Fund of the U.S., a board member of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, and former U.S. Ambassador to the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development.