US Reliance on China Problematic for AI Efforts, Commission Says

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But despite concerns, Eric Schmidt and Bob Work warn that decoupling from China 'will hurt the United States.'

The importance of artificial intelligence to national security is a rare area of consensus between America's political right and left, and between Washington, D.C., and Silicon Valley. But disagreement is emerging around the issue of tech talent and the large number of Chinese students studying in the United States and getting jobs in the tech industry. 

That finding and more were unveiled Monday by former Google chairman Eric Schmidt and former Defense Deputy Secretary Bob Work in a new report for Congress. Since March, their National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence has been looking at how the U.S. can retain an edge over China and other AI-seeking rivals. 

The good news out of the report is that policy-makers and defense leaders are addressing the bad news, which is that the United States’s position of tech leadership in AI is dissolving rapidly, said Work and Schmidt. The government still isn’t spending enough on AI research and development, despite some recent increases, and there is too much red tape around the Defense Department, they tell lawmakers. The Defense Department currently has about 600 artificial intelligence projects and is working to unite them under the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center. The report applauds many of the military's small, pathfinding projects but says the department has yet to scale them up successfully.  In other words, Schmidt and Work’s key concerns are ones with which most Defense Department leaders and politicians would agree. 

The commission identified near-unanimous concern about China surpassing U.S. capabilities on the battlefield; stealing intellectual property; and dominating research, development and commercialization of AI. Schmidt frequently tells audiences that China is funding its plans to dominate the field by 2030. Consensus on what to do about the high level of entanglement between the U.S. tech sector and China is far more elusive, particularly when it comes to employees, Schmidt and Work said. 

For years, attracting foreign students and tech workers to the United States has been considered essential for the growth of the American tech sector, which employ an increasing number of Chinese-born computer science grads and post-grads. More than 350,000 Chinese students were enrolled in U.S. universities in 2017, and make up an increasingly large portion of undergrads. But as President Trump has targeted China’s infiltration into the U.S. economy, talented Chinese students are beginning to look elsewhere. Top U.S. graduate business programs report that applications from China are falling as those students turn from American schools to Asian ones. 

“One of the things the commission investigated pretty carefully is how dependent we are on China today. The answer, which some people may not want to hear, is that we are dependent on Chinese researchers and Chinese graduate students,” said Schmidt. 

Work called it “one of the hard problems,” that the commission has been grappling with. “As you can imagine, because this is a national security commission, we’ve had some briefers who have really recommended decoupling [or separating economically] as much as you possibly can, because of the threats of [intellectual property] theft, etc. But then there’s another group that says, ‘No, in the area of AI, and especially in the area of research, entanglement is a virtuous thing.”

Some already are pushing for more decoupling.

“It might seem that welcoming Chinese students to the United States — and letting them experience a liberal culture where freedom of speech, religion, and politics is celebrated rather than persecuted — would be the first step toward creating opposition to the [Chinese Communist Party] at home,” says retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Robert Spalding, former senior director for strategic planning at the National Security Council, in his new book Stealth War.  But, he says, the trend of Chinese academic immigrants comes with strings attached and they differ significantly from other immigrant student populations. China, he says, maintains a firm grip on Chinese immigrants living in the United States, making it unlikely or impossible that the Chinese researchers abroad  will ever feel empowered to confront the Chinese government. “In fact, Chinese students are advised not to fraternize extensively with American students and maintain close contact with other Chinese foreign students."

The Pentagon already is tracking Chinese students. In 2018, the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit, or DIU, that interfaces with Silicon Valley and other tech hubs, published a paper that looked squarely at the issue of China’s influence over the U.S. technology sector, including the issue of Chinese tech workers and students in the United States. 

“China set a goal of bringing back 500,000 Chinese overseas students and scholars from abroad by 2015,” the DIU report reads. One example is a Chinese program called “‘Spring Light’ which pays overseas Chinese scientists and engineers to return home for short periods of lucrative service that may include teaching, academic exchanges, or working in government-sponsored labs. In addition, ‘Spring Light’ includes a global database of Chinese scholars to match specific technology needs to pools of overseas talent.”

The report lists “Immigration policy for foreign students” as “primary defensive levers” as part of a future policy framework. 

Michael Brown, the head of DIU who played a key role in drafting the paper, took a more nuanced view of the issue in conversation with Defense One last year. 

“Our strong preference — because we live in Silicon Valley and see the positive effect of immigrants that live in this area — were strongly in favor of allowing those folks who have work in STEM fields to get green cards and stay and contribute to our economy,” he said. “Right now, the situation is that we’ve educated those folks, so they’ll be leaving with their master’s and Ph.Ds in engineering, math, or whatever they’ve studied.”

So what to do about the trend of Chinese students attending American universities and taking positions in American tech companies? One thing to do not do, says Schmidt, is freak out. They play an important role, he says, and the U.S. needs them. 

“There’s a framing that somehow we could decouple all of those links and the report makes very clear, and the subsequent reports [will] make even stronger, such a decoupling at the human level would hurt the United States,” he said. “I want to repeat that: If you take those people out of the research chain it will hurt the United States. Because they are strong, helpful, may even stay in the country if they can get visas, and so on,” he said. 

The U.S. needs those Chinese experts, they argue. There are key areas in artificial intelligence where China and the U.S. share common interests, such as helping to create more reliable standards and practices for artificial intelligence, thus improving safety, said Work.

“So, for instance, both the United States and China, and Russia and all AI competitors want explainable AI and want AI that is trustworthy and reliable,” he said. 

“In my view, there is no danger in cooperating, entangling ourselves with researchers and competitors to get to that one thing we all agree on. We may use our AI for different things but we all agree that we want trustworthy and reliable AI. This is one where we’re trying to thread the needle between those who want decoupling and those who want coupling,” said Work. 

The report released Monday is a primer for a future report to come next October, which will surely be more controversial, as they will provide specific recommendations in terms of what the Pentagon can do better, how the government can spend better, and where, specifically, the U.S. can decouple from China. 

For right now, the message to lawmakers is “We’ve concluded that either of the two poles is not possible,” said Work. “We’ll try and thread the line in the final report and say, this is where we think we should couple, and this is where we think we should decouple.”

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