“Let’s you and him fight” is about the best expression of cynicism I know of. It’s also often great advice when dealing with a law-of-the-jungle-type situation like world affairs, where advancing your country’s interests without incurring much or any risk is a tactic that’s hard to beat.
As a formula for America’s response to the threat posed by China’s advances in artficial intelligence (AI), though? It’s completely unacceptable because it inevitably results in some portions of the population or the economy or the society or all three making all or most of any sacrifices needed to achieve an important national goal, and others getting off scot free or close to it.
And that’s a big problem with an otherwise very valuable new report from a federal government advisory committee on Chinese progress in this game-changing technology. On the one hand, the authors do a great job in explaining why permitting to narrow America’s lead in AI any further could be disaster for national security and prosperity, and for freedom around the world. As a result, they compellingly argue, grappling with this reality requires “comprehensive, whole-of-nation action.”
On the other hand, although they insist on a massive mobilization of U.S. energy and resources, they also maintain that “The United States can compete against China without ending collaborative AI research and severing all technology commerce.” Not only does this position make no sense whatever, given the Chinese ambitions for AI supremacy the Commission describes and the consequences of Chinese victory. It also means, conveniently, that the U.S. tech sector – from which many of the commissioners come – can keep making big bucks doing business with China.
More fundamentally, though, even if this square-circling policy framework wasn’t so sure to keep lining the pockets of many of the authors, it would still suffer from the intrinsically paralyzing qualities of the idea of “competition” as a guide to or aim for America’s approach to China. Simply put, the idea of competition is simply too complicated.
If you consider this perspective too cynical, or too dogmatic, or both, check out the following from the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence:
According to the commissioners, AI is more than “a single technology breakthrough” or even “general-purpose technology.” It nothing less than a “field of fields” that “holds the secrets which will reorganize the life of the world.’” And not surprisingly, “America’s military rivals are integrating AI concepts and platforms to challenge the United States’ decades-long technology advantage. We will not be able to defend against AI-enabled threats without ubiquitous AI capabilities and new warfighting paradigms.”
That’s because “AI applications will help militaries prepare, sense and understand, decide, and execute faster and more efficiently. Numerous weapon systems will leverage one or more AI technologies. AI systems will generate options for commanders and create battle networks connecting systems across all domains.”
Chief among these AI-progressing rivals is China, which the report says “possesses the might, talent, and ambition to surpass the United States as the world’s leader in AI in the next decade if current trends do not change.”
Specicifally, “China sees AI as the path to offset U.S. conventional military superiority by ‘leapfrogging’ to a new generation of technology. Its military has embraced ‘intelligentized war’––investing, for example, in swarming drones to contest U.S. naval supremacy. China’s military leaders talk openly about using AI systems for ‘reconnaissance, electromagnetic countermeasures and coordinated firepower strikes.’ China is testing and training AI algorithms in military games designed around real-world scenarios.”
Nor would Chinese AI superiority pose military threats alone:
“Authoritarian regimes will continue to use AI-powered face recognition, biometrics, predictive analytics, and data fusion as instruments of surveillance, influence, and political control. China’s use of AI-powered surveillance technologies to repress its Uyghur minority and monitor all of its citizens foreshadows how authoritarian regimes will use AI systems to facilitate censorship, track the physical movements and digital activities of their citizens, and stifle dissent. The global circulation of these digital systems creates the prospect of a wider adoption of authoritarian governance.”
Further, its AI push is such a priority for China that it’s determined to succeed by hook or by crook. The Commission reports that Beijing “is executing a centrally directed systematic plan to extract AI knowledge from abroad through espionage, talent recruitment, technology transfer, and investments.” Also crucial to China’s strategy: It “continues to pervasively steal American IP-protected technological advances through varied means like cyber hacking of businesses and research institutes, technological espionage, blackmail, and illicit technology transfer.”
Yet the AI report also observes that “The U.S.-China competition is complicated by the complex web of supply chains, research partnerships, and business relationships that link the world’s two AI leaders. Dramatic steps to sever these ties could be costly for Americans and reverberate across the world. The relationships between American and Chinese academics, innovators, and markets are deep, often mutually beneficial, and help advance the field of AI. Moreover, it remains in the U.S. national interest to leverage formal diplomatic dialogue about AI and other emerging technologies and to explore areas for cooperative AI projects that will benefit humanity.”
Worse, “Broad-based technological decoupling with China could deprive U.S. universities and companies of scarce AI and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) talent, sever American companies’ efficient supply chains, and cut off access to markets and capital for innovative firms.”
Therefore, the report expresses confidence that “The United States can compete against China without ending collaborative AI research and severing all technology commerce” and that America’s goal regarding China should be “targeted disentanglement as just one element of its overall approach, which, if applied judiciously to key sectors, can help build U.S. technological resilience, reduce threats from illicit technology transfer, and protect national security–critical sectors.”
The Commission even goes so far as to recommend establishing “a high-level U.S.-China Comprehensive Science & Technology dialogue” that would
>”Identify targeted areas of cooperation on emerging technologies to solve global challenges such as climate change and natural disaster relief; and
>Provide a forum to air a discrete set of concerns around specific uses of emerging technologies while building relationships and establishing processes between the two nations.”
Unquestionably, seeking this balance and these mutual gains is appealing in theory, and it would certainly create the best of all possible worlds for U.S. tech companies that profit hugely from their current business with China and clearly envision much more to come, but whose every existence is threatened by the aforementioned predatory Chinese policies. But there’s no reason to believe that this panglossian result can actually be achieved.
In the first place, the report claims that “China’s campaign to explit U.S.-based research violates the research community’s core principles of integrity, openness, accountability, and fairness.” That doesn’t sound like a terrific basis for mutually beneficial AI cooperation to me.
Second, as the Commissioners note, “AI is the quintessential ‘dual use’ technology—it can be used for civilian and military purposes. The AI promise—that a machine can perceive, decide, and act more quickly, in a more complex environment, with more accuracy than a human—represents a competitive advantage in any field. It will be employed for military ends, by governments and non-state groups.”
In effect, they’re acknowledging that even the most seemingly benign AI progress fostered by Sino-American cooperation can and will be used by China for military and other threatening ends. It’s true that the reverse could hold, too. But who’s willing to take the chance that the Chinese would be as generous sharing any knowhow that could be used against it as the United States will be? And who seriously believes that a lobby-friendly Washington could exercise the kind of control over U.S. technologists that the dictators in Beijing will exercise over their Chinese counterparts – assuming that scientists and companies with long histories of enthusiastic voluntary tech transfer to China will end or even curb these activities outside this official dialogue setting?
And above and beyond these dual-use complications, the notion that the United States can successfully compartmentalize its China AI and broader tech policies so precisely and expertly seems bound to create a rerun of America’s approach to date. Even under the Trump administration, the diversity of interests and voices that inevitably shape decisions in a pluralistic, democratic U.S.-style political system kept blurring and otright undermining Washington’s focus. The product has long been much more incoherence and half-at-best-measures than either effective checks on China’s power or strong commitments to the kinds of government- and economy-wide tech promotion that’s rightly urged by this Commission – and by many others before it.
In other words, even years after China’s malign intentions became clear to a critical mass of American political and business leaders, they’ve continued to permit bilateral ties (in the Commission’s words) to be “complicated by [a] complex web of supply chains, research partnerships, and business relationships….” In turn, that’s the main reason why, to quote the report again, “The U.S. government is not prepared to defend the United States in the coming artificial intelligence (AI) era.”
In a previous post, I criticized the Biden administration for describing the U.S.-China relationship as a competition because the term is
“so intrinsically ambivalent (especially in the realm of world affairs) that its much likelier to confuse than to provide useful policy guidance. In addition, competition is a concept that evokes the playing field, where both victory and defeat have ultimately trivial consequences, rather than the fundamentally anarchic and much more dangerous international landscape. Consequently, its use tends to downplay even stakes otherwise defined more threateningly.”
This AI report greatly adds to the evidence that treating America’s dealings with China as a competition (including President Biden’s latest version: an “extreme competition”) can only lead Washington down a dangerous dead-end. It’s effectively contending that, even though China literally is seeking the United States’ defeat and domination, it’s still interested in helping Americans cure cancer or save the world from climate change, and that therefore current U.S. policy need only a large number essentially tweaks to keep safeguarding national security and prosperity adequately. And it assumes that American policymakers are skilled enough to achieve the needed “calibration” of rivalry and cooperation. (Watch this term turn into a favorite of U.S. officials and pundits – especially the globalists – going forward.)
I’m much more impressed with former boxing champion Mike Tyson’s observation that “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” In other words, what looks great on the drawing board – or on the word processor – tends to fall apart when it confronts reality.
The lesson to be learned isn’t that planning and strategizing isn’t necessary. Instead, it’s that particularly in high-stakes situations, the conceptually simplest plan will likely be the best. When it comes to the China challenge, including artificial intelligence interactions between the two countries, that means spending much less time trying to thread needles, and more time figuring out how to shut down the transfer of superior U.S. knowhow to China as completely as possible.