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As China marches forward on artificial intelligence, US is silent

Cade Metz | NYT/ 14 Feb 18 | 12:34 AM

China’s rocket forces conducted two tests late last year of a new “hypersonic glide vehicle" or HGV, known as the DF-17

In July, China unveiled a plan to become the world leader in artificial intelligence (AI) and create an industry worth $150 billion to its economy by 2030.

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To technologists working on AI in the United States (US), the statement, which was 28 pages long in its English translation, was a direct challenge to America’s lead in arguably the most important tech research to come along in decades. It outlined the Chinese government’s aggressive plan to treat AI like the country’s own version of the Apollo 11 lunar mission — an all-in effort that could stoke national pride and spark agenda-setting technology breakthroughs.

The manifesto was also remarkably similar to several reports on the future of artificial intelligence released by the Obama administration at the end of 2016.

“It is remarkable to see how AI has emerged as a top priority for the Chinese leadership and how quickly things have been set into motion," said Elsa Kania, an adjunct fellow at the Center for a New American Security who helped translate the manifesto and follows China’s work on artificial intelligence. “The US plans and policies released in 2016 were seemingly the impetus for the formulation of China’s national AI strategy."

But six months after China seemed to mimic that Obama-era road map, AI experts in industry and academia in the United States say that the Trump White House has done little to follow through on the previous administration’s economic call to arms.

“We are still waiting on the White House to provide some direction" on how to respond to the competition, said Tim Hwang, who worked on AI policy at Google and is now the director of the Ethics and Governance of AI Initiative, a new organisation created by the LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman and others to fund ethical research in artificial intelligence.

China’s embrace of AI comes at a crucial time in the development of the technology and just as the lead long enjoyed by the United States has started to dwindle.

For decades, artificial intelligence was more fiction than science. In the past few years, however, dramatic improvements have prompted some of the biggest companies in Silicon Valley and Detroit — and China — to invest billions on everything from self-driving cars to home appliances that can have a conversation with a human.

AI has also become a significant part of national defense policy as military leaders and ethicists debate how much autonomy we should give to weapons that can think for themselves.

American companies like Amazon and Google have done more than anyone to turn AI concepts into real products. But for a number of reasons, including concerns that the Trump administration will limit the number of immigrant engineers allowed into the United States, much of the critical research being done on artificial intelligence is already migrating to other countries, including tech hot spots like Toronto, London and Beijing.

To China’s growing tech community, driving the industry’s next big thing — a mantra of Silicon Valley — is becoming a tantalising possibility.

“Thanks to the size of the market and the rapid experimentation, China is going to become one of the most powerful — if not the most powerful — AI countries in the world," said Kai Fu-Lee, a former Microsoft and Google executive who now runs a prominent Chinese venture capital firm dedicated to artificial intelligence.

The 2016 AI reports were shepherded by President Barack Obama’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).

The OSTP, which has overseen science and technology activities across the federal government for more than four decades, is now run by the deputy chief technology officer Michael Kratsios. He had worked as a Wall Street analyst before serving as chief of staff for an investment fund run by Peter Thiel, a venture capitalist who supported Trump’s presidential run. The administration has yet to name an office director or fill four other assistant posts. In a recent interview,  Kratsios was adamant that any concerns over the administration’s approach to AI were unfounded.

©2018 The New York Times News Service

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