Nov 2, 2019 - Technology

AI is getting caught up in politics

In this illustration, two businessmen with megaphones scream on either side of a miniature robot.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

After decades of gestation in relative obscurity, leading-edge technologies like AI and quantum computing have been thrust into the center of an era-defining competition between China and the U.S.

Why it matters: Politicizing these technologies has led to a rush of investment — but it risks hobbling international collaboration and potentially even derailing some critical research.

Driving the news: The Trump administration has explicitly declared its drive to dominate in a techno-race with China.

  • "We fundamentally believe America must lead the world in critical emerging technologies," U.S. Chief Technology Officer Michael Kratsios said at Stanford this week.
  • The week before, the White House sent out an announcement, with comment from Ivanka Trump, celebrating a quantum computing breakthrough by Google.

The state of play: Through agencies like the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, and the National Science Foundation, the government is setting aside money for AI and quantum computing research — though top scientists are calling for more than 10 times the current funding.

  • The political drumbeat could help create a national consensus around the critical nature of AI, says Jon Bateman, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former Pentagon strategist.
  • Still, there is an "asymmetry between the United States and China," says Tarun Chhabra, a senior fellow at Georgetown's Center for Security and Emerging Technology. "[T]he Chinese Communist Party's whole technology worldview is driven, not merely charged, by the imperative of consolidating social control and emerging dominant in geopolitical competition."
  • That means the Chinese government can direct companies to work on a problem it decides is pressing, while the U.S. has to convince companies the problem is worthy of their investment.

The most concrete example of the politicization of emerging technologies so far is the Trump administration's tightening immigration policy, which has made it harder for students and scholars to visit from China.

  • "This is a common and predictable response, but even purely from the standpoint of national competition, it invariably shoots in the foot the country that does it," says Scott Aaronson, a leading quantum computing researcher at UT Austin.
  • "Where do they go [instead]? They go to Toronto," says DJ Patil, head of technology for medical startup Devoted Health and former U.S. CTO under President Obama. "That concerns me greatly and it should concern anybody who is pro-entrepreneurship," he says.
  • The Commerce Department is also considering new trade rules for emerging technologies that could hobble academic research and technological competition.

A larger worry yet to be realized is that this rhetoric can change the course of basic research. In the 1980s, the U.S. raced to match Japanese advances in a subfield of AI that petered out soon thereafter.

  • "There's a risk of ceding the choice of technologies to the adversary," says Tom Dietterich, a leading AI researcher who teaches at Oregon State University. "If China goes deep into something, then should we be going into that same thing because we don't want to lose to them on it?"
  • But so far the U.S. has avoided this fate in this round of AI development, he says.
  • "Generally the U.S. system has been pretty good at seeding different types of approaches," says Adam Segal of the Council on Foreign Relations.

The bottom line: "Viewing [these technologies] from the political lens is creating a hype cycle," says Caltech's Anima Anandkumar.

  • It's distorting the reality of where the technology stands — which is that, despite the buzz, AI is still riddled with errors and biases.
  • And many researchers say developing these emerging technologies is not a zero-sum game, anyway, despite the global-struggle framing: If scientists can continue to collaborate across borders, some advances could bring broad benefits.

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