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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

For over a year, China has moved to lead the creation of the first global norms for AI. Now, the U.S. is developing its own AI standards, as the two rivals compete to shape a technology that could define the future balance of authoritarian and democratic power.

What's happening: China's ambitions are a dimension of its all-hands push to lead the world in frontier technologies — especially AI — by the end of the next decade. Having been relegated to the sidelines in the last big cycle of standard-setting at the birth of the internet, Beijing is laser-focused on dominating this new round.

As AI moves increasingly into actual commercial use, the leading nations are positioning themselves to standardize the field to their own advantage. This includes everything from minute technical standards to procedures for removing bias from algorithms.

Countries and companies have a lot to gain from leaving a mark on the process.

  • For one, firms whose technology is deemed part of a global standard can make big money in royalties — in the way Qualcomm, for example, profits from its wireless technology patents.
  • What's more, the definitions of AI buzzwords like "fairness" and "transparency" are still up for grabs. How they are codified will have a sweeping effect on the way AI systems are deployed and whom they benefit — companies, governments, or users.

Beijing got out of the starting gate first: Last year, China published a detailed report focused on ethical norms and technical standards that are meant to allow companies to work together more easily. A few months later, Beijing hosted the first major international meeting on AI standards.

  • For China, shaping global AI standards is key to “seizing a new round of technology dominance," according to the Chinese report, published by the government, industry and academia. (Jeff Ding, an Oxford AI policy researcher, translated it into English.)
  • At the Beijing meeting, the Chinese delegation ended up with plum spots on planning groups and helped shape their agendas, wrote Ding, Eurasia Group's Paul Triolo and New America's Samm Sacks in the months after the summit.
  • China's strong showing "could enable Chinese actors to influence a wide range of issues related to AI standards, including ethical and social norm development," they wrote.

The response: The Trump administration has vigorously pushed back against China's tech drive. Trump earlier this year signed an executive order designed to keep Beijing at bay on AI.

  • Last week, as required by the order, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) proposed a plan to work with industry and academia on new metrics and standards for accuracy, "trustworthiness" and bias of AI systems.
  • The EU and OECD have also advanced high-level guidelines.

One short-term risk of this international rush is a "rebordering" of AI, in which the field will develop according to different rules in the U.S., Europe and China. Thus far, AI has been characterized by significant international collaboration.

  • "We could have researchers and companies having to pick a side," says Amy Webb, an NYU professor and founder of the Future Today Institute.
  • "This could drastically reduce productivity; it could drastically increase costs."

The big question: Where a potential future global policy will settle. Everyone realizes that they will have to compromise to yield the prize — unitary rules.

  • But meanwhile each side is driving stakes in the ground now so that they can pull the eventual consensus in their direction.
  • "One country is not getting exactly what it wants," says Elham Tabassi, acting chief of staff at NIST's information technology laboratory.

Go deeper

The hard math behind America's labor shortage

Data: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Congressional Budget Office; Chart: Axios Visuals

Yes, the pandemic has created unusual temporary labor market dynamics. But in the bigger picture, the 2010s were a golden age for companies seeking cheap labor. The 2020s are not.

The big picture: In the 2010s, the massive millennial generation was entering the workforce, the massive baby bo0m generation was still hard at work, and there was a multi-year hangover from the deep recession caused by the global financial crisis.

Advocates fret Roe v. Wade's 49th anniversary could be its last

Photo: Leigh Vogel/Getty Images for Women's March Inc

As Saturday marks the 49th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court's landmark decision that legalized abortion access in the U.S., advocates warn the ruling is "more at risk now than ever."

The big picture: The Supreme Court in December heard a challenge to a Mississippi 15-week abortion ban that could throw Roe's survival into question, or at least narrow its scope.

Updated 12 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

  1. Health: Pfizer and Moderna boosters overwhelmingly prevent Omicron hospitalizations, CDC finds — Omicron pushes COVID deaths toward 2,000 per day — The pandemic-proof health care giant.
  2. Vaccines: The case for Operation Warp Speed 2.0 — Starbucks drops worker vaccine or test requirement after SCOTUS ruling — Kids' COVID vaccination rates are particularly low in rural America.
  3. Politics: Biden concedes U.S. should have done more testing — Arizona says it "will not be intimidated" by Biden on anti-mask school policies — Federal judge blocks Biden's vaccine mandate for federal workers.
  4. World: American Airlines flight to London forced to turn around over mask dispute — WHO: COVID health emergency could end this year — Greece imposes vaccine mandate for people 60 and older — Austria approves COVID vaccine mandate for adults.
  5. Variant tracker

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