As the tension and tech rivalry between the U.S. and China intensifies, the competition surrounding artificial intelligence is taking center stage.
During the recent Tortoise Global AI Summit, panelists weighed the dynamics of an increasingly fraught relationship between two countries that are intent on wielding economic influence around the world. That competition had already shown signs of bitterness even before the trade war launched in recent years by President Trump.
While this competition extends across a wide range of technologies, the panelists agreed that AI is increasingly a focal point thanks to the essential role many predict it will play in the coming decades. Not only is the race for AI supremacy pitting China against the U.S., but it is forcing every other region to reassess how they fit into this technological duel between superpowers.
“We’re seeing a technology competition in the context of a worsening relationship between the world’s two great powers,” said John Sawers, former head of the U.K.’s MI6 spy agency. “These two countries have roughly equal-sized economies and they are using their economic platform as a vehicle for projecting power for their influence on controlling the world. AI is a central feature in that wider technology race.”
Joining Sawers on a panel was Nigel Toon, CEO of Graphcore, and Sana Khareghani, head of U.K. government’s Office for AI.
“I think when it comes to China and the US, they’re putting AI in the center of a confrontation they’ve had for a very long time,” Khareghani said. “It’s an economic race to be the leader and technology had been kind of thrown in there.”
While the panelists discussed the conventional wisdom that AI efforts in the U.S. are led by companies and China it is driven by government policy, Toon pushed back against that view. He acknowledged a greater government role in China, but he said much of the AI development is being pushed by tech giants such as Alibaba or Huawei who have the same motivations as Google or Facebook: maintaining their competitive edge.
Such companies seem unbeatable today from the outside, he said. But inside they are driven by the same fear that someone outside will displace them by creating products driven by superior AI.
“If you look at this from the perspective of some of the big tech companies, AI is existential,” Toon said. “If somebody else develops leading edge AI quicker than Google…that’s what Google is worried about. That’s why they’re investing fortunes into this. That’s why Facebook is investing fortunes in this. That’s why Google buys Deep Mind, because it’s just existential to these massive companies. Same for Alibaba. Same for Tencent.”
The main difference in China, Toon added, is that the government has a much closer and cooperative relationship with its tech companies. In addition, China has an advantage in terms of its policies and culture around privacy and data.
“There are no restraints on their collection and use of data,” Sawers said. “In the West, we pride ourselves on individual privacy as being part of the free society…China has set up a surveillance system inside their major cities which is so powerful, it’s the sort of control mechanism Joseph Stalin would have died for because it is very, very extensive. That does give them an advantage in this area because AI and machine learning rely very heavily on the mass collection of data and being able to crunch that data and manipulate that data.”
This picture of a two-way race inevitably led to the question of where and how Europe fits into the picture. The European Union has, in recent years, also made AI development a political and economic priority. The region is investing large sums into research and startups, but also trying to carve out a distinct identity by taking a more ethical approach to AI than the U.S. or China.
Khareghani said that numbers such as venture capital that show the U.S. and China with big leads tend to underestimate the strength of Europe.
“I think it’s worth considering that the U.S. and China are leading in a specific way in terms of how much investment they’re putting in to into AI,” she said. “But in terms of focus, dedication, and thought leadership, the U.K. is up there along with the other countries like Canada, Germany, and France. So I do think that there is more than just funding criteria that should go into that.”
Still, Europe does have some severe limitations. Toon noted, for instance, that while Europe has made impressive strides in many areas related to deep tech, it also remains heavily dependent on other regions for many of the basic computing components needed to develop advanced computing.
“There are very limited supplies for some of the core underlying technology,” Toon said. “Take semiconductors. There are three companies on the planet that can build at the very leading edge of semiconductors. We work with TSMC, who is based in Taiwan. Then there is Samsung in Korea and Intel in the U.S. I think it’s unbelievable, or impossible to think that we in Europe could develop these leading-edge semiconductor technologies.”
So how should Europe respond? Toon worries that growing regulations around data and AI use, while intended to promote trust and confidence, could backfire by tying the hands of the region’s companies.
“We need to be careful that we don’t put in place some policy that actually causes Europe not to be able to compete because we can’t get access to some of these leading-edge technologies,” Toon said.
Until now, Europe has been trying to leverage its status by also working with both the U.S. and China. But recent events have made that increasingly difficult. And as the U.S. and China increasingly create trade barriers and try to assert their technology independence from each other, that is going to require Europe to rethink its relationship to both regions.
“I think Europe for a long time felt that somehow it could get the best of both worlds,” Sawers said. “It could maintain political and defensive alliances with United States, but we could treat China as an equal economic partner. I think one thing that COVID has done is really taken the scales from the eyes of many Europeans about the nature of this Chinese regime…The Chinese have become much more assertive. We’re seeing what China is doing in Hong Kong in the South China Sea. And we see what it’s doing in the cybersecurity domain. We’re seeing how much more repressive China is.”
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