New voices shame US government, tech leaders for muffing AI lead
Has China, which one generation ago was laughed off as a manufacturing threat to the West, already beat the United States in artificial intelligence?
There have been a few embarrassing tombstones erroneously carved for U.S. industries (aerospace comes to mind) facing foreign competition, but there being a real debate about China outperforming in AI is sobering.
Some newly strident voices on the matter say the United States government and tech elites have not served the nation’s interests. They are blaming anti-competitiveness, dull thinking, unfocused planning and a Cold War mentality.
According to the Financial Times, Nicolas Chaillan, the U.S. Air Force’s first chief software officer, said China has won the AI competition. “It’s already over, in my opinion.”
Chaillan resigned last month, leaving behind a letter that was scathing if not actually bitter. He said he was exhausted by having to raise funds like a rural public radio station, begging for commitments and working with less than was promised.
Since then, Chaillan has expanded his assessment of national priorities, technological and otherwise. The major tech companies, all with mind-boggling overseas caches of revenue, are stifling AI development with anti-entrepreneurial mindsets, he said.
Debates about ethical development, deployment and management of AI algorithms also has fatally hobbled public and private research and rollouts, according to Chaillan.
Just two weeks ago, AI Now, an institute within New York University, and independent research house Data & Society put together a memo making some of the same points. The have harsh judgments for the White House’s National AI Research Resource task force.
The groups said federal intentions to “democratize” AI research through the task force, breaking research free of the biggest tech companies in the developed world, are just talk.
New spending priorities are required and “deeper engagement on the harms unleased by uncritical investment in AI” is entrenching narrow-view corporate control of the sector.
Unlike Chaillan, the research firms see “mounting evidence” that “large-scale AI systems” operate in ways that are unethical, particularly when it comes to ensuring equity across demographics.
Indeed, the organizations recommend that the task force stop what it is doing until “serious ethical and data privacy challenges” can be addressed through demonstrated best practices and integrated with global policy precedents.
The task force is also pushing a “tech cold war narrative” that results in a view that investment in intensive AI is necessary to compete with foreign adversaries, just as Chaillan argues. This view, AI Now suggests, Big Tech is almost a branch of national defense.
In the same way that most people do not want to second-guess a branch of the military for fear of giving an enemy an advantage, people who are worried about China’s AI advances are afraid of upsetting the balance of power by questioning Big Tech.