In April, as Eric Schmidt watched a computer program defeat China’s top go player in a ground-breaking match in the Chinese city of Wuzhen, the executive chairman of Google’s parent company was struck less by the considerable innovations displayed by human and machine than by the audience: “To me the more interesting thing [was that] all the top computer science people in China had shown up.”
It showed, Schmidt said, the importance placed on AI development by both the Chinese government and its people, and was a postcard from the future competition for AI dominance.
“I’m assuming our [U.S.] lead will continue over the next five years and then that China will catch up extremely quickly,” the Google leader told the Center for New American Security’s Paul Scharre at the Artificial Intelligence & Global Security Summit on Wednesday.
Schmidt doesn’t like the term “arms race” to describe the U.S.-Chinese rivalry in artificial intelligence, in part because defining AI as a weapon is limiting at best and flatly inaccurate at worst. But it is a tool that can make one military, company, economy, and even nation much more effective than another. And China, he says, is positioning itself to devour the current U.S. advantage in just a few years.
In July, China unveiled a massive, national plan for the future of artificial intelligence, to guide both commercial and military development. Its timeline caught Schmidt’s attention. “By 2020, they will have caught up. By 2025, they will be better than us. By 2030, they will dominate the industries.”
For Schmidt, the take-home was clear: “We need to get our act together, as a country…This is the moment when the [U.S.] government collectively, and private industry, needs to say, ‘these technologies are important.’”
But, he said, the Trump administration isn’t doing that. In fact, several moves are putting the U.S. at a disadvantage.
For example, Trump’s 2018 budget request slashes funds for basic science and research by $4.3 billion, roughly 13 percent compared to 2016. (Trump’s military budget does increase money for basic science and research in the Pentagon, but only by $117 million.) While there’s lots of private and corporate money going into AI research, those funds don’t guarantee advantage on a national level.
“It feels, as an American, that we are fighting this conflict with one hand behind our back. What I would rather do is not adopt the Chinese policies, but…fund basic research. The Trump budget does reduce that. It’s the wrong direction,” Schmidt said.
The Google leader also slammed Trump’s multicountry travel ban and other immigration policies that would close America’s doors to smart students, researchers, and entrepreneurs who want to come study and start companies.
“Let’s talk about immigration. Shockingly, some of the very best people in AI are in countries that we won’t let into America. Would you rather have them building AI somewhere else or would you have them building here?” he asked. “Iran produces some of the top computer scientists in the world. I want them here. I want them working for Alphabet and Google. It’s crazy not to let these people.”
Schmidt has not been shy about his disagreement with Trump on immigration, but Wednesday marked the first time he cast the disagreement in terms of future national security and state-on-state competition. It’s an area he knows something about; the Google leader currently chairs the Defense Innovation Advisory Board, set up by then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter. In January, the Board approved 11 recommendations to help the Pentagon better integrate technology and innovation into the way it buys and operates weapons. The future of those recommendations, and the board itself, is undetermined.