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As China marches forward on artificial intelligence, the White House is silent
[SAN FRANCISCO] In July, China unveiled a plan to become the world leader in artificial intelligence (AI) and create an industry worth US$150 billion to its economy by 2030.
To technologists working on AI in the United States, 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 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 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 defence policy as military leaders and ethicists debate how much autonomy we should give to weapons that can think for themselves.
US companies such as 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 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 former 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 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 Mr Trump's presidential run. The administration has yet to name an office director or fill four other assistant posts.
In a recent interview, Mr Kratsios was adamant that any concerns over the administration's approach to AI were unfounded.
"Artificial intelligence has been a priority for the Trump administration since Day 1," he said. Mr Kratsios added that the administration was particularly concerned with the development of AI in national security and as a way of encouraging economic prosperity.
Many staff members in Mr Kratsios' office are exploring issues related to artificial intelligence, he said. Mr Kratsios also meets a committee, set up by the Obama administration, that coordinates AI policy across the government.
"The key thing to remember is that the front line of AI policy is at the agencies," he said.
"The White House is a convener and a coordinator."
In an echo of plans laid out by the Obama administration, China's government said it intended to significantly increase long-term funding for AI research and develop a much larger community of AI researchers.
There are several ways to do that, according to the Obama administration and China. First, educate more students in these technologies. Second, recruit experts from other countries.
At the same time, both policy statements urged companies to share more technology and data. Huge pools of data are needed to "train" AI systems, and in the United States much of this is locked up inside companies like Facebook and Google. Mr Lee said China has an enormous advantage here because its large population will generate more data and its companies are more willing to share.
Artificial intelligence has been a focus of Chinese technologists for some time. By 2013, China was producing more research papers than the United States in the area of "deep learning", the key technology driving the rise of AI, according to the Obama reports. Deep learning, which allows machines to learn tasks by analysing vast amounts of data, is one of the key technologies driving the rise of artificial intelligence.
It is unclear how much China as a whole is spending. But one Chinese state has promised to invest US$5 billion in AI, and the government of Beijing has committed US$2 billion to an AI development park in the city. South Korea has set aside close to US$1 billion of its own. Canada, home to many of the top researchers in the field, has committed US$125 million to, in part, attract new talent from other countries.
It is also difficult to say just how much the US government is spending. Government organisations such as the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the National Science Foundation continue to fund new research in universities and the private sector. According to an OSTP report, the federal government spent about US$1 billion a year in 2015. The Trump administration says spending jumped to US$3 billion in 2017. But the current administration said that was not an apples-to-apples comparison to the 2015 tally, because it was not certain how the Obama administration made it calculations.
"We may have a bunch of small initiatives inside the government that are doing good, but we don't have a central national strategy," said Jack Clark, a former journalist who now oversees policy efforts at OpenAI, the artificial intelligence lab co-founded by Elon Musk, Tesla's chief executive.
"It is confusing that we have this technology of such obvious power and merit and we are not hearing full-throated support, including financial support."
The Trump administration's budget for 2018 aims to cut science and technology research funding across the government by 15 per cent, according to a report from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
"They are headed in precisely the wrong direction," said Thomas Kalil, who led OSTP's Technology and Innovation Division under Obama.
"That is particularly concerning given that China has identified this as a strategic priority."
Over the past five years, much of the progress in AI technology has been led by US companies such as Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook. But these companies don't need AI technologists to work in the United States in order to employ them.
Take Geoffrey Hinton, a key figure in the rise of AI at Google and across the tech industry. He recently moved back to Toronto, where he was a professor for many years. He now runs a new Google lab in that city. Last year, he took on an Iranian researcher who was denied a visa by the US government.
Google operates another important lab in Montreal. Its London lab, DeepMind, may be home to more top-notch AI researchers than any other lab on earth. And Google recently unveiled new labs in Paris and Beijing. Facebook, after creating its own lab in Canada, recently pumped 10 million euros into its existing operation in Paris. And Amazon is opening a lab in Germany.
Inside these facilities, researchers still create technology for their US employers. As the labs grow and the products get better, some employees can be expected to leave to start their own companies and hire their own employees.
Google's and Microsoft's work in China has led to Chinese startups like Malong, which is building image recognition systems, and a major AI investment fund run by Mr Lee.
"When it is close to you, something like Microsoft Research has real economic value," said Mr Clark, of OpenAI.