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Robotics competition, funded in 2015 by DARPA, the Pentagon's radical innovation lab. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty

Amid the global race for supremacy in artificial intelligence, two more tech companies have joined Google in refusing to work on military and police surveillance projects, a sign of the brewing rift between tech players and the government.

Why it matters: Some experts worry that, to the degree AI-focused companies go their own way, the field may lose the long-term, fundamental focus of government-funded programs that have produced some of the world's most hallowed inventions.

Over the decades, numerous foundational technologies have emerged from U.S. military-funded research: among them, semiconductors, cryptography, the internet, GPS and mobile phones. "They arose out of war — or the fear of war" that characterized the Cold War era, says Will Carter of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

  • But recently Google, facing an internal rebellion by employees, bowed out of work on a Pentagon contract called Project Maven.
  • Over the last week, facial-recognition company Kairos and Affectiva said they, too will shun such contracts.
  • This has coincided with a different pathway for AI development: The large majority of AI funding in the U.S. is coming from impatient private investors, not the federal government.

This shift in the balance of power between AI funding and development means the private sector is leading in an area with "massive national security implications," says Gregory Allen, an adjunct fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

  • “Fundamental, long-term, deep technical research and development: That’s always been the province of government,” Carter said.
  • But private actors typically want results in three or so years. Carter says the private horizon is too short to create meaningful AI advances.
  • One risk: While some longer-range, patient government funding for basic AI research continues, Carter says private money will focus on low-hanging fruit, such as new applications for existing deep-learning concepts that can turn a quick profit.

The backstory: This dynamic reflects a general lack of government leadership on AI, some experts say. Unlike China, Japan, South Korea, the U.K., France, Canada, and several other countries, the U.S. has not outlined a clear national vision for AI development.

  • The Obama administration started down the path in late 2016 when it published a "strategic plan" for AI R&D.
  • And that's what jolted China into action, said Jeff Ding, a researcher at Oxford University's Future of Humanity Institute. Thinking it was playing catch-up, China published an AI strategy in 2017 — parts of which looked suspiciously familiar.
  • The Trump administration has taken small steps toward solidifying its own AI strategy, such as convening officials, business leaders, and academics for a D.C. summit in May. But the consensus from researchers and companies is that the White House is not doing nearly enough.

The U.S. could learn a thing or two from other countries, both smart and unwise.

  • Ding says there was a "huge wave" of innovation in China's private sector after the government announced its 2017 plan.
  • But, but, but: Much of what China is doing isn't directly transferrable to the U.S. context, because of the Chinese government's more direct control over research. And some of its strategy might better serve as a cautionary tale than a gold standard.
  • Close collaboration between the private sector and the security apparatus runs the risk of "incubating a surveillance state with public funds."
"The US only has a small advantage over China and some of the other nation-states. Without a national strategy I think we're at risk of falling behind."
— Josh Elliot, director of machine intelligence, Booz Allen Hamilton

Go deeper:

  • Why the U.S. needs a "Sputnik moment" in technology (Axios)
  • What should a national AI strategy look like? (MIT Tech Review)
  • The U.S. looked on as China made AI a national priority (NYT)

Go deeper

Omicron pushes COVID deaths toward 2,000 per day

Expand chart
Data: N.Y. Times; Cartogram: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

The U.S. Omicron wave may be peaking, but now COVID deaths are climbing as cases continue to soar in most of the country.

The big picture: Omicron’s stranglehold in the U.S. started about a month ago. Its death toll — while almost certain to be smaller than previous waves of the pandemic — is only now starting to take hold, and deaths will likely continue to rise for several weeks.

Tax season nightmare ahead for understaffed IRS

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

The IRS will start accepting 2021 tax returns in less than a week, and the filing delays and administrative headaches to come might eclipse last year — which was “one of the worst filing seasons," according to an independent advocacy agency within the IRS.

Why it matters: For taxpayers, especially with complex or paper filings, this means headaches, delayed refunds, and mistakes.

Reports: CIA finds "Havana Syndrome" unlikely caused by foreign campaign

CIA Director William Burns testifies during a Senate hearing on Capitol Hill last April. Photo: Saul Loeb-Pool/Getty Images

A preliminary CIA report rules out a foreign global campaign as the cause of a mysterious illness known as "Havana syndrome" that's afflicted American and Canadian diplomats around the world, per multiple reports.

Why it matters: Some lawmakers had suggested the sometimes debilitating illness was due to directed energy attacks. But CIA officials told the New York Times that most of the 1,000 cases reported to the government could be "explained by environmental causes, undiagnosed medical conditions or stress." This finding has angered some victims, per the NYT.