New AI Cold War coming soon

Audio version of the article

Can the world’s democracies work together to stay ahead of China?

The United States is the world’s leading force in artificial intelligence (AI), for now, but China is rapidly catching up making partnerships among democracies critical to staying ahead of China’s capabilities. Alongside those competitive and security tensions, the world lacks a common rulebook for the ethical use of AI.

Speaking at a POLITICO AI Summit on Thursday, Eric Schmidt, chairman of the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence and former CEO at Google, said the U.S. urgently needs a national AI strategy based on the principle of “whatever it takes.” Schmidt said Americans could not relax on AI issues because even consumer AI innovations have the potential to be “used for cyber war” in ways that aren’t always evident or anticipated. Schmidt has previously warned against “high tech authoritarianism.”

While the U.S. has lacked central organizing of its AI, it has an advantage in its flexible tech industry, said Nand Mulchandani, the acting director of the U.S. Department of Defense Joint Artificial Intelligence Center. Mulchandani is skeptical of China’s efforts at “civil-military fusion,” saying that governments are rarely able to direct early stage technology development.

Tensions over how to accelerate AI are driven by the prospect of a tech cold war between the U.S. and China, amid improving Chinese innovation and access to both capital and top foreign researchers. “They’ve learned by studying our playbook,” said Elsa B. Kania of the Center for a New American Security.

“Many commentators in Washington and Beijing have accepted the fact that we are in a new type of Cold War,” said Ulrik Vestergaard Knudsen, deputy secretary general of Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which is leading efforts to develop global AI cooperation. But he argued that “we should not abandon hope of joining forces globally.” Leading democracies want to keep the door open: Ami Appelbaum, chairman of Israel’s innovation authority, said “we have to work globally and we have to work jointly. I wish also the Chinese and the Russians would join us.” Eric Schmidt said coalitions and cooperation would be needed, but to beat China rather than to include them. “China is simply too big,” he said. “There are too many smart people for us to do this on our own.”

The invasive nature and the scale of many AI technologies mean that companies could be hindered in growing civilian markets, and the public could be skeptical of national security efforts, in the absence of clear frameworks for protecting privacy and other rights at home and abroad.

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