In a speech on July 16, Attorney General William Barr warned the public of the impending threat of Chinese dominance. In the hour-long speech, he urged that it wasn’t just economic prowess or military muscle that would cement Beijing’s rise to the top. China’s rapid development of digital technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), Barr insisted, could yield unmatched intelligence and military capabilities.
“Whichever nation emerges as the global leader in AI will be best positioned to unlock not only its considerable economic potential, but a range of military applications, such as the use of computer vision to gather intelligence,” Barr said.
China’s Edge in AI Development
Adding to the administration’s frustrations is the popularity of Chinese manufacturing within American companies. Cheap labor and a virtual monopoly on rare earth metals have attracted American investment since the 1980s. The problems created with this sort of offshoring have been well documented in recent decades. In recent weeks, other high ranking official have voiced concerns about the PRC’s intentions.
The attorney general’s speech put the pressure on American companies to end their relationships with the Chinese Communist Party. Barr specifically called out large players like Google, Apple, and Microsoft for their cooperation, suggesting that some of America’s most powerful firms are complicit in assisting China’s grab for power.
“Keep your friends close and your enemies closer”
In reality, it’s a bit more complicated. It would be difficult to pretend that the economic benefits from offshoring in China haven’t contributed to those companies’ growth. And yet, it could be the case that China may not be the best long-term investment for American private interests.
“If you are an American business leader, appeasing the PRC may bring short-term rewards. But in the end, the PRC’s goal is to replace you,” Barr said. “American companies must understand the stakes. The Chinese Communist Party thinks in terms of decades and centuries, while we tend to focus on the next quarterly earnings report.”
Congressionally-mandated commissions echo Barr’s urgency. For example, the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence has called for drastic funding increases for AI development. They have also deemed AI development between China and the U.S. as true competition.
U.S. Competes and Makes AI Leaps
While China’s AI plan (part of its Digital Silk Road initiative) is certainly ambitious, the United States has been making considerable technological headway in its own right. The federal government has partnered with technological companies through programs like Project Maven. Maven utilizes the AI capabilities of some of America’s largest technology companies, including some of the firms Barr called out. Within the military, branches have been busy developing their own artificial intelligence. The Army AI Task Force seeks to coordinate combat systems automatically, and the Navy has even sought approval for autonomous ships.
Silicon Valley’s role in the AI Race
China’s commitment to AI superiority is rightfully concerning. China has proven to be a central government with a high degree of control over their firms and information. However, in America’s private sector, AI developments are making global news. For example, Silicon Valley research lab OpenAI has launched a service called GPT-3, an artificial intelligence service that can essentially code itself. All users have to do to create a functioning code is just use plain English. Tutorials show how prompts like “a button that looks like a watermelon” are coded into just that. It’s a simple example, but it is indicative of the next generation of artificial intelligence. Artificial intelligence will be used and packaged by a more significant number of people who don’t necessarily need in-depth AI knowledge.
If AI is the Future, it needs Funding
The way the technological world has reacted to GPT-3 should alleviate any doubts that AI is not the future. The U.S. is positioned well in the AI Race. If the U.S. wants to maintain technological, economic, and military superiority, it needs to look no further than Silicon Valley—while also committing itself to the funding necessary to compete with nations like China.