China’s AI strategy is a bigger deal than its 5G ambitions

AI China
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The US should probably spend less time worrying about China’s 5G dominance and more time worrying about its plans to dominate artificial intelligence development

ITEM: While the US continues its war on Huawei’s 5G portfolio, a new policy paper from non-profit think tank Center for a New American Security (CNAS) warns that the US has another security problem on its hands: China’s plans to lead the world in artificial intelligence (AI).  

China’s ambitions (and ability) to drive AI development has been talked about a lot in the last few quarters, but the CNAS paper, published online last week, argues that there’s a gap between what American pundits think about China’s AI ambitions and what those ambitions actually are (and what the Chinese government will do to fulfil them). The paper aims to summarize how China’s leadership sees AI strategically in terms of both the country’s economy and national security.

In short, Beijing is firmly convinced that AI is “critical to the future of global military and economic power competition”, to include reducing its dependence on foreign technology imports, and sees AI as a crucial tech tool to give its military a serious edge over the US. It also sees the US as its only serious competitor in the AI field, and despite talk over “concerns” about a military-focused AI arms race, China is aggressively pursuing exactly that.

The paper also notes that while China is in a strong position in AI R&D and commercial applications – thanks to its continued access to international markets, technology, and research collaboration – Beijing believes its ecosystem weaknesses (compared to the US) lie in “top talent, technical standards, software platforms, and semiconductors”.

And it’s in the semiconductor space that China is especially focused on – partly because developing its own chips will enable it to depend less on overseas vendors, but mainly because custom chipsets will be arguably THE key component driving advances in AI tech going forward:

Where China is behind in AI and semiconductors, present trends suggest that the gap will narrow. This is a key government priority, receiving enormous attention and investment. […]

… China’s success in commercial AI and semiconductor markets has direct relevance to China’s geopolitical power as well as its military and espionage AI capabilities.

Little of this is new or surprising for those of us covering Asia tech, but then the paper is aimed at US policymakers who know next to nothing about AI, what China plans to do with it, and the security implications therein.

As for what they should be doing about this, the paper is short on detail but concludes generally that (1) the US should take this more seriously than it appears to be doing, and (2) more importantly, the recommended response is to beef up its own AI competitiveness than try to influence or curb China’s:

If the United States wants to lead the world in AI, it will require funding, focus, and a willingness among U.S. policymakers to drive large-scale necessary change. U.S. leaders have more powerful tools to influence the technological and economic competitiveness of the United States than they have tools to influence China’s competitiveness. They should prioritize accordingly.

That’s good advice. The challenge is whether US policymakers are willing to follow it, given that the US government’s obsession with Huawei’s 5G dominance appears to be not so much about whether the company’s 5G gear poses some actual national-security threat but the belief that the US has no commercial equivalent of Huawei in the marketplace. The US policy seems to be an admission that it has to resort to anti-competitive bans (and lobbying allies to follow its example) because it has no domestic innovative industry players to counter Huawei’s progress and influence.

(Which isn’t necessarily true – Qualcomm owns a ton of patents, and while Nokia and Ericsson aren’t US companies, they’re not hapless wannabes in the 5G equipment race either, so surely they could be enticed to step up their game?)

Anyway, one key difference between 5G and AI – apart from the likelihood that AI poses a far greater security threat than 5G (or at least could have a far greater impact) – is that the US already leads the AI space and has several heavy-hitters in Silicon Valley. So there’s still time and opportunity to develop a solid AI policy that doesn’t rely on the same nationalist / protectionist nonsense currently informing the US government’s 5G policy.

ADDENDUM: As it happens, literally while I was writing this, President Trump signed an executive order called the “American AI Initiative” that aims to reprioritize existing agency R&D funds to focus on AI, provide government data resources to AI researchers, establish standards, retrain workers and collaborate internationally. It’s a mixed bag in that it covers the right bases, but critics note that it’s vague on details, offers promises rather than solid commitments and creates no new funding.

Notably, the order (and this accompanying blurb from Michael Kratsios, Deputy Assistant to the President for Technology Policy) doesn’t explicitly frame AI leadership as a protectionist national-security move to counter China’s advances, as the Trump administration has repeatedly done with 5G. Perhaps that will come later in the tweets?

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