U.S. should double A.I. funding, says the former head of Google China

Key Points
  • Kai-Fu Lee's venture capital firm Sinovation Ventures has backed one of China's hottest AI companies, Face++.
  • The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency announced a $2 billion AI initiative earlier this month.
Kai-Fu Lee, CEO of Sinovation Ventures, on Dec. 17, 2015.
VCG | Getty Images

As China becomes more active in artificial intelligence, the U.S. should double the amount it spends on research in the field, says investor and AI practitioner Kai-Fu Lee, who has worked for Google, Microsoft and Apple.

The comments come after various parts of the U.S. government have made AI announcements, even as the U.S. overall lacks a formal AI strategy. Meanwhile, China introduced its plan last year: it's aiming to be No. 1 in AI innovation by 2030.

"Double the AI research budget would be a good start, given that all other countries are so much farther behind U.S., and we're looking for the next breakthrough in AI," said Lee.

Doubling funding could double the chances that the next big AI achievement will be made in the U.S., Lee told CNBC in an interview this week.

Lee, , whose book "AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley and the New World Order" was published this month by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, is CEO of Sinovation Ventures, which has invested in one of the most prominent AI companies in China, Face++. In the 1980s at Carnegie Mellon University he worked on an AI system that beat the highest-ranked American Othello player, and later he was an executive at Microsoft Research and president of Google's China branch.

Lee acknowledged previous U.S. government technology competitions like the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Robotics Challenge and asked when the next one would be, in order to help identify the next visionaries.

Researchers in the U.S. often have to work hard in order to win government grants, Lee said.

"It's not China that is taking away the academic leaders; it's the corporates," Lee said. Facebook, Google and other technology companies have hired luminaries from universities to work on AI in recent years.

Lee said immigration policy changes could also help the U.S. bolster its AI efforts.

"I think green cards should automatically be offered to PhD's in AI," he said.

China's State Council issued its Next Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan in July 2017. China's National Natural Science Foundation provides funding to people at academic institutions similar to the way that the National Science Foundation and other government organizations dole out money to U.S. researchers, but the quality of academic work is lower in China, Lee said.

Earlier this year the U.S. Defense Department established a Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, which is meant to involve partners from industry and academia, and the White House announced the formation of Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence. And this month DARPA announced a $2 billion investment in an initiative called AI Next. As for the NSF, it currently invests more than $100 million per year in AI research.

Meanwhile, U.S. legislation that sought to create a National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence has not seen action in months.

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