Home > Uncategorized > China Invests in AI as US Divests… and the Future Looks Bleaker as a Result

China Invests in AI as US Divests… and the Future Looks Bleaker as a Result

May 28, 2017

“Is China Outsmarting the US in AI?”, a question posed in an article by Paul Mozur and John Markoff in the Technology section of yesterday’s NYTimes, left me with a chill. Mozur and Markoff describe the divergent paths the governments of China and the US are taking relative to AI (i.e. Artificial Intelligence), with China’s government investing billions in research while the US is spending less. The article makes it appear that there might not be that much difference in which country advances the most in AI, but the notion that China’s amoral and authoritarian command capitalism might dominate the field concerns me. Mozur and Markoff describe China’s rationale for developing AI in this paragraph:

China’s ambitions mingle the most far-out sci-fi ideas with the needs of an authoritarian state: Philip K. Dick meets George Orwell. There are plans to use it to predict crimes, lend money, track people on the country’s ubiquitous closed-circuit cameras, alleviate traffic jams, create self-guided missiles and censor the internet.

These intended outcomes should drive our country to get the upper hand on AI assuming our country values an equal opportunity for all citizens, freedom of speech, and freedom of movement. But instead of using our values as a positive lever to promote more government spending on AI, we are relying on fear. While the President’s budget cuts funding for AI, there is one department who is concerned:

The Defense Department found that Chinese money has been pouring into American artificial intelligence companies — some of the same ones it had been looking to for future weapons systems.

While our best hope for investment is driven by the Department of Defense who wants to use AI for weapons, China purports a desire to use AI for peaceful purposes. Mozur and Markoff offer this contrast in investment strategies:

On a national level, China is working on a system to predict events like terrorist attacks or labor strikes based on possible precursors like labor strife. A paper funded by the National Natural Science Foundation of China showed how facial recognition software can be simplified so that it can be more easily integrated with cameras across the country.

China is preparing a concerted nationwide push, according to the two professors who advised on the effort but declined to be identified, because the effort has not yet been made public. While the size wasn’t clear, they said, it would most likely result in billions of dollars in spending.

President Trump’s proposed budget, meanwhile, would reduce the National Science Foundation’s spending on so-called intelligent systems by 10 percent, to about $175 million. Research and development in other areas would also be cut, though the proposed budget does call for more spending on defense research and some supercomputing. The cuts would essentially shift more research and development to private American companies like Google and Facebook.

The balance of the article describes why China’s top-down authoritarian government arguably hobbles research efforts, using the example of medical research on SARs as an example. The piece concludes with this observation by Clay Shirkey, an NYU futurist:

For all the government support, advances in the field could ultimately backfire, Mr. Shirky said. Artificial intelligence may help China better censor the internet, a task that often blocks Chinese researchers from finding vital information. At the same time, better A.I. could make it easier for Chinese readers to translate articles and other information.

The fact is,” Mr. Shirky said, “unlike automobile engineering, artificial intelligence will lead to surprises. That will make the world considerably less predictable, and that’s never been Beijing’s favorite characteristic.”

But if China’s purpose in the development of AI is to control workers by predicting labor strikes and control the populous through the widespread use of simplified facial recognition software one thing IS easy to predict: the world of Winston Smith (Orwell’s protagonist in 1984) is far more likely to occur than the “do no evil” world of Google.

And one last note: it’s unclear to me that unpredictability is Washington DC’s favorite characteristic… and even more unclear that voters are seeking a less predictable world. If anything, we are seeking an orderly world where things are as they used to be in a past that never was….

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