China is winning the Artificial Intelligence (AI) race due to the U.S. army’s bureaucratic, sluggish posture, and private actors like Google which refuse to work with the American government, according to the Pentagon’s former software chief, who resigned his position in September.
In his first interview since posting a blistering resignation letter to LinkedIn, Nicolas Chaillan told the Financial Times that U.S. cyber defenses in some government departments were at a “kindergarten level,” and without changing course immediately, the U.S. has “no competing fighting chance” against China in the race to technical dominance, particularly in the field of AI.
His comments echo the findings of a congressionally-mandated U.S. national security commission, which warned earlier this year that China could surpass the U.S. as the AI superpower within the next decade. The commission of 15 technologists, national security professionals, businesses executives and academic leaders did not mince words. “America is not prepared to defend or compete in the AI era,” the report said. “This is the tough reality we must face.”
Over the last few decades, AI has emerged as the apex of technological advancement. The science and engineering of making intelligent machines, especially intelligent computer programs, unlocks countless possibilities for changing the world. The possibilities for “smart” machines, especially ones that can learn and problem solve, are endless: from managing mundane administrative tasks to organizing and synthesizing huge reams of data, to darker applications like network exploitation, advanced cyberattacks, military applications, and surveillance functions like facial and speech recognition.
“Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world,” Russian President Vladimir Putin ominously noted in 2017. That same year, China released its “New Generation” plan, outlining its strategy to lead the world in AI by 2030. In an astonishingly rapid and unexpected pace, China is now nipping at America’s heels in AI development.
Google: Not Quite America’s National AI Champion
All of this adds poignancy and urgency to Chaillan’s indictment of Pentagon policies. It also adds an element of skepticism to the repeated claims by Big Tech companies that any political or policy action in their direction will threaten national security, and harm America’s ability to compete with China.
Google and its defenders have gone to lengths to make this point, recently lining up a slate of former national security officials to claim that antitrust legislation under consideration by the House of Representatives would impede innovation that is “critical to maintaining America’s technological edge.”
Likewise, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who chaired the panel which found the US deficient in AI development, has claimed that breaking up Google would “set us back against China.” Antitrust analysts, some of whom work for organizations funded by Google, now argue that these companies provide too much valuable research and development to be constrained in any way. Any policy changes that will impact Google, we are told, will be the reason China wins.
But the reality is something different. Google is, indeed, a national leader in AI development, in that it has massive resources and a monopoly on the best minds in the industry. Yet, despite its repeated talking points and lobbying strategy, the company appears to have limited interest in making itself an indispensable element of a national AI strategy — or in taking steps to oppose Chinese dominance in the field.
Google has, famously, refused to work with the Department of Defense on artificial intelligence projects after employee protests. Yet Google has no such qualms about opening an AI office in Beijing, where the Chinese government openly uses AI-powered technology to hunt, track, imprison, and forcibly sterilize its Uighur Muslim minority.
Between 2006 and 2010, Google maintained a version of its search engine in China which censored information on behalf of the Chinese government. After pulling the search service out of China in 2010, the company was busted in 2018 trying to reinstate it — this time, with censorship of websites and search terms about human rights, democracy, religion, and peaceful protests.
General Joseph Dunford, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2019 that “the work Google is doing in China is indirectly benefiting the Chinese military.” He went on, “Frankly, ‘indirect’ may not be a full characterization of the way it really is, it is more of a direct benefit to the Chinese military.”
Google, our so-called national champion in the AI technology race, appears to be hedging its bets. The U.S. may win the AI war, or we may not, and Google wants to be on the side of the winner. More specifically, they want to be on the side of making money off the billions of eyeballs in the Chinese market.
Google’s Woke Struggle Sessions Threaten Reliability
Even if Google were to take its role in leading the country to AI supremacy seriously, it’s an open question if the company even could. Not because it doesn’t have the smartest people — it does — but because the company is constantly embroiled in and side-tracked by the woke struggle sessions that now typify the upper echelons of elite society.
In November of last year, the company parted ways with Timnit Gebru, a prominent black research scientist in the field of AI. (Gebru was either fired from Google, or resigned — accounts differ.) According to Google, Gebru insisted on publishing a paper which the company decided “didn’t meet our bar for publication,” and “ignored too much relevant research” on recent improvements to AI. The company asked Gebru and her Google co-authors to retract the paper, or remove their names. They refused.
Gebru’s departure immediately became a cause célèbre for diversity and identity politics in the field of AI. According to coverage from the Washington Post:
Nearly 3,000 Google employees and more than 4,000 academics, engineers, and industry peers signed a petition calling Gebru’s termination an “act of retaliation” by Google. Last week, nine Democratic lawmakers, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Cory Booker (N.J.) and Rep. Yvette D. Clarke (N.Y.), sponsor of the Algorithmic Accountability Act, a bill that would require companies to audit and correct race and gender bias in its algorithms, sent a letter to Google chief executive Sundar Pichai asking the company to affirm its commitment to research freedom and diversity.
The merits of the dispute between Gebru and Google aside, it has been nearly a year since Gebru’s departure and the issue is still being written about as continuing to define Google’s AI practice.
The ethics of AI, the topic of Gebru’s specialty, is a critical component to its development. But the continued brouhaha raises some tough questions for Google, like if the company is even capable of being the tip of the spear with regard to advancing America’s AI research at both scale and speed. Past precedent suggests Google’s efforts will continue to be sidelined by the employee protests and management hand wringing that grind research to a halt. If that is the case, Google is an unreliable ally, at best, in this national endeavor.
Either way, America is on the cusp of losing the race to AI dominance to China. And despite Google’s assertions to the contrary, Google’s status as a national research champion should be viewed with skepticism. At a minimum, it should no longer be used as an excuse not to address the very real competition policy problems the company presents.
America has the capacity to win the AI war with China — not by entrenching interests, but by disrupting them. Innovation and bold, creative thinking is not bred in massive companies or coddled by government favoritism, but in dynamic, vibrant, and competitive spaces. It’s time our federal policy ensured such a marketplace exists in the tech sector — to clear the space for new companies to rise to our national challenge, replacing incumbents like Google which appear busy meeting diversity quotas and hedging their bets on American losses.