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China poised to surpass U.S. in artificial intelligence, panel warns

Commissioners on the panel warned that China already has leveraged artificial intelligence in malign ways.

Updated: March 5, 2021 - 1:02pm

The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook

China is poised to eclipse the United States in the field of artificial intelligence, a government commission warned this week in a stark and comprehensive report on the growing and powerful industry.

"China's plans, resources, and progress should concern all Americans," wrote officials from the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence (NSCAI). "It is an AI peer in many areas and an AI leader in some applications. We take seriously China's ambition to surpass the United States as the world's AI leader within a decade."

In a stark message, commission chairmen warned: "America is not prepared to defend or compete in the AI era."

The group issued the findings Mar. 1 as part of a comprehensive, two-year study into AI and national security. Barely two years old, the NSCAI was created in order to address how the United States should advance its AI and related technologies as they apply to national defense. 

Artificial intelligence will wield increasing clout in coming years, the group's 15 commissioners noted in their 756-page report. "It will be the most powerful tool in generations for benefiting humanity," they wrote. "Scientists have already made astonishing progress in fields ranging from biology and medicine to astrophysics by leveraging AI."

But, they added, AI has a darker side.

"AI systems will also be used in the pursuit of power," commissioners wrote. "We fear AI tools will be weapons of first resort in future conflicts."

If China surpasses the U.S. in AI, commissioners wrote, the repercussions will include a significant impact on American defense. 

Commissioners warned that China already has leveraged AI in malign ways — including against one American target.

"A National Basketball Association general manager was harassed on social media for supporting protesters in Hong Kong, in an effort that may have involved autonomous bots," commissioners wrote. "Other techniques rely on AI-generated fake personas." 

Others outside the commission have voiced their concerns about Chinese AI. 

Even though the U.S. has better technology, China is better poised to use AI, author and China expert Gordon Chang told the John Solomon Reports podcast. 

"China's AI overall is probably in a better position than we are because AI runs on data," Chang said on the Thursday podcast. "And we're a democracy, we have restrictions on what information people, companies can collect, what governments can collect. China has no such prohibitions."

China uses AI to take information from others, Chang said.

"China's stealing the world's data through a number of different ways," he said. "And so their AI, even if this technology isn't as good as ours, is probably going to be superior because they're just feeding more stuff into their system."

The AI industry overall is maturing, according to analysts at Stanford University in California.

"It's clear from the data that, in 2020, AI started to have a more significant impact on the world, while the technology continued to evolve very rapidly," said Jack Clark, who co-leads an annual AI study for Stanford's Institute for Human-Centered AI. 

In the Stanford group's latest report, announced on Wednesday, Clark echoed the assessment that China's AI capability is on the rise. 

"Our bibliometric analysis shows that the United States and China have become peer nations with one another on AI development, when analyzed through a variety of dimensions," Clark observed.

China aims not to be peers, but to outpace the United States, the NSCAI officials warned. In order to counter this, the U.S. needs to take bold action, the commission's vice-chairman Bob Work said in a March 1 public meeting.

"This is not the time for paralysis by analysis," Work said, noting that the U.S. needs to be "AI ready" by 2025.

The commission operates under a charter from the National Defense Authorization Act. It originally was scheduled to disband this month. Congress extended the group's charter for another seven months, to expire on Oct. 1, 2021.

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