The Edge

Trump's battle against Silicon Valley may create an opening for China in artificial intelligence

Key Points
  • A recent report indicated that Secretary of Defense James Mattis urged President Trump to focus on the threat from China's artificial intelligence ambitions.
  • Trump has been relentlessly attacking Silicon Valley's leading tech companies, including Amazon, Google and Twitter.
  • The divide between Washington, D.C. and Silicon Valley threatens a partnership that will be critical to maintaining the U.S. lead in AI as China invests heavily.
  • On Friday, the military's research arm, DARPA, announced its first major AI investment plan, $2 billion over five years.

There is little doubt that the Department of Defense needs help from Silicon Valley in order to compete with China in the race for artificial intelligence. The question is whether Silicon Valley is willing to cooperate and whether President Donald Trump's combative nature risks damaging the vital partnership.

Last week reports surfaced that Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis had warned Trump that the United States is not keeping pace with the ambitious plans of China in artificial intelligence.

On Sept. 5, 2018, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey testify during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill concerning foreign influence operations' use of social media platforms.
Drew Angerer | Getty Images

Instead, Trump  attacked Google, Facebook and Twitter on Twitter last week, accusing the tech giants of intentionally suppressing conservative news outlets supportive of his administration. More than that, he aggravated the rift between the government and tech industry.

"Just when we need to have the government and the tech industry working together, they're fighting one another. Our enemies couldn't have asked for a better scenario," said Vivek Wadhwa, a fellow and adjunct professor at Carnegie Mellon University's College of Engineering, who researches growing technologies.

The president's outburst comes at a time when the tech industry has proved hesitant to support national security efforts. An article in the New York Times this week quoted the CEO of Palantir — the secretive Silicon Valley big data firm that has key government contracts — exhorting his fellow tech leaders to show their patriotism.

When called to testify in front of Congress this week concerning election meddling and online content, executives from Google declined the invitation. The company offered its top lawyer, Kent Walker, to testify, but at the last minute lawmakers said they would not accept any official but Google CEO Sundar Pichai. Facebook and Twitter executives made face but were criticized for their delay to cooperate when the election scandals emerged back in 2016.

"If you look at the history, tech companies — which were engineering companies — often had close collaboration with the U.S. government and military. I think we see less of that in the information technology world," said Bart Selman, president-elect of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence.

Tech employees have turned increasingly political

Complicating matters more so, tech employees throughout the left-leaning Silicon Valley have moved from apathy to activism in the past few years. In recent months thousands of tech workers from top companies, including Google, Salesforce, Amazon and Microsoft, have led large-scale internal rebellions against their employers over contracts with the government. Employee outrage has largely stemmed from the sale of technology, particularly AI, for military application.

The response from the top has been mixed. In June, Google announced that it would not renew one of its contracts, known as Project Maven, with the Pentagon. The project utilized Google's AI technology to improve drone strikes in the battlefield. However, executives from Salesforce, Microsoft and Amazon refused to cede to employee demands and did not terminate their contracts.

Elsa Kania, an adjunct fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a think tank that explores policy related to national security and defense, said she believes that regardless of whether executives take employee demands seriously, the reluctance from employees is "concerning."

In order for the United States to hold its lead over China, she said it is "vital for the military to learn from and take advantage of the expertise and perspective" from Silicon Valley. "It appears that China's leading companies and leading universities may be more willing to work with the military, whereas their U.S. counterparts are seemingly less willing," said Kania.

While the press was focused on Elon Musk smoking weed during an appearance on the Joe Rogan podcast this week, the tech billionaire and outspoken thinker on the dangers of AI also noted in the interview that an advantage China holds over the U.S. is high-level politicians who are knowledgeable on science.

Tech doesn't want to be arbitrator for all of society, says virtual reality pioneer
Tech doesn't want to be arbitrator for all of society, says virtual reality pioneer

In 2017, China laid out aggressive groundwork to become the world leader in AI by 2030, aiming to top rivals technologically and create a domestic industry worth $150 billion. The world's second-largest economy has all of the ingredients to do so: strong ties with private tech firms, a government strongbox, a large population and a thriving research community. It is estimated that the Chinese government already has invested $300 billion in AI, chips and electric cars.

On Friday, the Defense Department's research arm, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (also known as DARPA), announced a $2 billion investment to be made in AI over the next five years, which military publication Stars and Stripes described as setting up a "technological arms race with China and an ideological clash with Silicon Valley over the future of powerful machines."

The Trump administration has made strides to further the country's AI development but has been criticized for scaring off talent. Trump's immigration clampdown is making it increasingly more difficult for the United States to attract and retain international experts. Conversely, the Chinese government has been aggressively recruiting top engineers from around the world.

"The Chinese government recruits talent from all over the world. And the tech industry in return gives the government everything it wants. It's really a joint partnership. One couldn't exist without the other," Carnegie Mellon's Wadhwa said.