US May Lose AI Race, Thanks to Trump

Trump’s anti-immigrants and laissez-faire AI policies could set the US on disadvantages that loses it the race, and even its future economy.

Source: Gage Skidmore on Flickr

There was the steam engine. And then there was the Internet. Now there’s AI. It’s going to be the next biggest technological leap and economic opportunity in the history of mankind.

This, to the US economy, is like the arms race during the cold war era. Money is power. The economic advantage that AI can give any nation could last for decades.

But 10 years from now, the US could become one of the least competitive in AI among developed countries. And it all started with Trump.

Here’s why…

No money no honey (robot ones that is…)

In recent years, the governments of various industrialized countries have been announcing their AI development strategies. Along with these announcements were multi-billion dollar commitments to fund research, education and businesses in AI, summarized by the chart below.

Sources: China, France, Germany, Japan, Korea, UKUS

In February 2019, two years after taking office, the Trump administration finally issued an executive order called the “American AI Initiative”. The amount committed to AI funding: $0.

“Instead, the document calls on federal agencies to prioritize existing funds toward AI projects.”
— “Trump’s executive order on AI, explained”, recode.net

The Trump administration is essentially telling government agencies: Yes, we need to focus on AI going forward. Please cut something else from your budget and spend it on AI.

There were no specifics on how to cut or what to spend on. However, the order requires various agencies to submit their proposals and action plan over the next six months.

The recode.net article also noted that Trump’s executive order had policy recommendations that “closely resemble” those released in a 2016 report commissioned by Obama.

Perhaps this is the media’s polite way of paraphrasing ‘copy and paste’.

Who really owns what?

Some may argue that the US economy has always been driven by private enterprise and not government spending. But as I’ve explained in “US vs China in AI — A Realistic, No B.S. Assessment”, by equity value China has already exceeded the US in AI deals globally. In fact, China’s venture capital industry could become the biggest in the world in 2019.

Furthermore, between 2014–2018, the three giant Chinese tech firms, Baidu, Alibaba and Tencents, invested in 39 AI startups. By equity deal share, the composition from the US vs China were almost equal. In contrast, there was only one large US tech firm (Google) that invested in a Chinese AI startup during that same period.

In 5–10 years time when these AI startups mature, who really owns them?

Source: CB Insights

Brain drain crisis

Another glaring omission from Trump’s executive order was the lack of discussion on immigration issues.

In an op-ed piece in Wired magazine published after the order was released, Professor Oren Etzioni, CEO of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, called on Trump “to include a special visa program for AI students and experts to help us win this race for the sake of both economic vitality and national security”.

He outlined in detail how changes to the US immigration and visa rules in recent years have hurt the ability of the US to attract and retain top brains in AI, from students and researchers to workers and entrepreneurs.

This again, contrasted with all the other countries that have been fighting to attract AI talents and entrepreneurs. For example, China’s tech startup hub in Beijing, the Zhongguancun district, has nine overseas liaison offices — including two in the US — to attract top talent.

Even though Canada’s government funding for AI has not reached the billion dollar mark, it has many government programs in place to attract students, workers and entrepreneurs in high-tech domains. And as one New York Times article observed back in May 2017, the AI talents it is attracting could be coming at the expense of the US due to Trump’s immigration policies.

“Trends in actual immigration will take time to show up conclusively, but the early evidence of a Trump effect is most apparent in a field like artificial intelligence, where Canada has been at the forefront of innovation and is seeking to build a large A.I. industry.”
“If we look back 10 years from now, I’d be surprised if the Trump effect didn’t show up in the data,” said Joshua Gans, a professor at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto.
— “A Trump Dividend for Canada? Maybe in Its A.I. Industry”, The New York Times

According to the article, even large US companies like Google, Microsoft, IBM and Uber have also shifted their AI research teams to Canada.

PS: Before you pack your bags for Canada, do review reader Marzan A’s personal experience on the AI scene there at the moment. He moved from the US to Vancouver and in short, found jobs scarce and low in pay.

Running with lead on your legs

Modern businesses, especially in technology intensive domains like AI, are built on two things: capital and talents. It’s best to have both, but you got to have at least one.

With disadvantages in both funding and talents, that’s like running a race with lead strapped to your legs. You may start out as the biggest and fastest competitor. But with enough distance even the little guys might overtake you. (Especially if they are being pumped up on ‘money and talent steroids’ right now…)

Trump is a businessman. He of all people should recognize that. But yet his executive order on AI had nothing concrete on either of these crucial aspects.

But then again he probably has no time to deal with details on AI development. He’s far too busy right now trying to justify spending the US government’s money on building border walls and keeping out immigrants.

Ironic, isn’t it?


Side note:

Traditionally a lot of the technology that blossomed in the US originated from the military. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) said in September 2018 that it has committed US$2 billion to AI research — which included existing projects.

So isn’t that good?

Well, the American public is becoming more conscious and active in protesting against AI research with a lethal objective. Last year, Google pulled out of military contracts after its employees protested (some even resigned) because their work were being used to develop lethal AI.

A nonprofit call The Future of Life Institute — whose advisors include Elon Musk and Stephen Hawkings — released this sensational video call “Slaughterbots” [ Trailer | Full Length ] in November 2017 to raise public awareness of what military AI research could lead to in the future.

The history of mankind does not argue well for restraint when it comes to using technology for destruction. While it is important for any country to maintain a strong military, unlike the US, other governments seem more focused on creating prosperity, and not hostility, where AI is concerned.