Ex-Google CEO Eric Schmidt stresses ‘urgency’ in countering China on artificial intelligence as US-China tech war continues

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Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt called on the US government to fast track development of emerging technology including artificial intelligence (AI) to catch up to China’s lead.

The United States is “one or two years ahead of China, not five or 10” and “the Chinese are well ahead in areas like face recognition,” said Schmidt at a Tuesday hearing held by the Senate Armed Services Committee on emerging technologies and their impact on national security.

“Because of the diffusion of the technology, you have to expect that anything that’s invented in the open source AI world will immediately be adopted by China,” said Schmidt, who is also the chairman of the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, established in 2018 through the John S. McCain National Defence Authorisation Act.

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“The threat is very, very real.”

Eric Schmidt (at left) and Brad Smith, president of Microsoft Corporation, at Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday during a hearing on emerging technologies and their impact on national security. Photo: AP
Eric Schmidt (at left) and Brad Smith, president of Microsoft Corporation, at Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday during a hearing on emerging technologies and their impact on national security. Photo: AP

Soon after the hearing, Chuck Schumer, Senate Democratic leader, said he has directed lawmakers to craft a package of measures to strengthen the US tech sector and counter China’s unfair practices.

Schumer said at a weekly press conference that he has directed committees to craft a bipartisan bill based on legislation he proposed last year in May seeking funding of US$100 billion to spur research in key tech areas, from artificial intelligence to quantum computing and semiconductors.

As part of the package, senators are also looking at providing emergency funding to implement bipartisan semiconductor programmes included in last year’s National Defence Authorisation Act, which sets overall US military spending and the Pentagon policies backed up by that spending.

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The swift advances in Chinese artificial intelligence were partly due to the country’s supportive policy including its “Next Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan” introduced in 2017. The plan is to make China an AI superpower by 2030, surpassing its rivals to become “the world’s premier artificial intelligence innovation centre”.

Its massive population and weak data privacy laws also allowed China easy deployment of such technology. Fast growing AI technologies are fuelling China’s military strength; the gap in defence capabilities between the two countries is quickly narrowing.

Schmidt stressed that “urgency” should drive the US policy, regardless whether the focus is on the public funding or private-sector initiatives.

“The [US] government will need to help with some forms of funding, and we need to let the private sector build those things and make it successful,” said Schmidt, who is now co-founder of Schmidt Futures, his philanthropic initiative to promote emerging technologies and science.

“The private sector is America’s great strength. We move faster and globally than any government could and we need global platforms or be forced to use the Chinese ones which is a disaster,” he said.

AI is just one of many areas that US government has identified as crucial in shaping future national security. In 2018, America’s national defence strategy identified 14 categories of emerging technologies as critical, including AI, semiconductors, quantum computing, biotechnology, hypersonics, and 5G.

By the end of 2020, the Commerce Department expanded that list to 37 categories. Products that fall under these groups are under restriction as exports to China.

The US also needs to maintain a shrinking lead against China in semiconductors. In June, lawmakers introduced bills seeking tens of billions in funding in the US tech sector. The principles were incorporated into the National Defence Authorisation Act that became law on January 1.

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“But it’s not enough,” said Schmidt. “I suggest we take American ingenuity, which is profound, with some form of incentive system to close this gap and put those semiconductor foundries in the United States and use them for both commercial but also military purposes.”

The US remains the world’s largest chip exporter by market share, but the country accounts for just about 12 per cent of global semiconductor production capacity, while the centre of chip making has shifted to places like Taiwan and South Korea.

Schmidt said recent comments made by European leaders are concerning.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently announced that he was determined to improve economic and trade ties with China “whatever the occasional political difficulties”.

Earlier this month, French President Emmanuel Macron said the European Union should not gang up on China with the US.

“This is a bad omen for what’s going to happen. We must build every possible technological sharing path between our key alliances,” Schmidt said. “I’m worried that we do not understand the competitive threat from China to what we’re trying to do.”

“These are contests of values as well as investments. And it’s important that American values, the things that we hold and cherish so deeply, are the winners in all of these technological areas,” he added.

“There’s a set of tech platforms which are going to happen, but they’re going to happen first in China unless we have a more concerted effort in America,” said Schmidt. “I’d like to see a national list of key technology platforms that we collectively agree must emerge using Western values, and must be the ones being used by our partners.”

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