Experts fear US losing ground to China on AI

Experts fear US losing ground to China on AI
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China’s public intention to become the world leader in the development of artificial intelligence has many in the United States questioning what the U.S. government is doing to protect the country’s dominant position in the AI race.

U.S. technology companies, such as Google, Facebook and Apple, still lead foreign rivals in AI technology. But some observers say the U.S. government has sat on the sidelines. In November, recently retired Alphabet chairman Eric Schmidt said the federal government needs to “get its act together” on AI.

Schmidt isn’t alone. In Washington, lawmakers say the White House needs to step up its AI policy.

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“We don’t have a national strategy. The people who should be leading the national strategy are the White House,” said Rep. John DelaneyJohn Kevin DelaneyMcAuliffe won't rule out 2020 run in Iowa campaign swing Did Congress just settle for less than best plan to reform housing finance? 2020 Dems jockey for position before midterm elections MORE (D-Md.), co-chairman of the Congressional Artificial Intelligence Caucus. “China has a national strategy.”

Technology companies also say they want to see more action from the federal government.

“I don’t think federal agencies are investing in AI enough,” said Ian Buck, vice president of technology company NVIDIA’s accelerated computing business unit. “I would love to see the government invest more in research funding and proactively evaluate the deployment of AI.”

The Trump White House has paid little attention publicly toward AI policy.

Experts fear that, without action from the White House, the U.S. could lose technological ground to China.

“China already has a meaningful track record — when it says it’s going to pursue something, then it makes it happen,” said Jack Clark, who oversees policy at Open AI, an artificial intelligence lab co-founded by Elon Musk.

In July, China released a statement saying it would give serious attention to AI with the goal of becoming the world leader in AI by 2030.

Even if China doesn’t overtake the U.S., though, experts in the American AI community think the U.S. could still lose a large chunk of global market share in terms of both AI development and talent to the Chinese.

“The amount of rhetorical support you give AI is meaningful,” Clark said. “The market and talent for AI is global. These people are going to go to institutions in countries which are showing support for it.”

While China’s play at AI dominance is still in its early stages, it’s already having an effect.

Chinese research submissions to AI conferences have already ramped up significantly, while investment in Chinese AI work and patent filings are also on the rise.

U.S. AI experts say there is still time for the federal government to back AI investments.

“There’s a real risk of losing our edge on AI, but there is still plenty of opportunity for the U.S. government to act,” said Dean Garfield, president of the Information Technology Industry Council, a trade association that lobbies on behalf of tech giants.

Garfield, who said he’s in regular contact with the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, says the White House is working on artificial intelligence even if the administration doesn’t say much about it.

“I don’t think that they’re talking about it enough, and they’re not outlining a clear strategy that would give people reason to be confident,” he said. “The critique I have is that they need to talk about it and share it more broadly, so that the private sector and academia can contribute as well.”

Academics say they feel like AI research isn’t getting enough funding from the government.

“[The government] is not investing enough. The amount that’s coming in is very small,” said Pedros Domingos, a professor at the University of Washington who specializes in machine learning.

For its part, the White House rejects the premise that it’s not doing enough on AI. Instead, the administration says that it has a strategy in the works.

“To maintain American leadership in artificial intelligence, the U.S. will continue to propel our nation’s [research and development] ecosystem,” Michael Kratsios, the head of the Office of Science and Technology Policy at the White House, said in a statement.

Kratsios said the White House will prioritize research funding in academia “and work in partnership with the private sector” to bolster U.S. innovation in AI.

The White House also pointed toward its continued funding of basic AI research across agencies, including the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Department of Defense and the National Institutes of Health. The administration also touted  $200 million in Department of Education funding toward improving STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — education.

But many in the AI industry and academia are puzzled by what they see as federal disinterest in AI.

“If you look at the ‘America first’ priorities of the Trump administration, this should play very well with them,” Domingos said. “This is about making the U.S. competitive economically and militarily.”