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Inside the U.S. and China's Incoming Artificial Intelligence Cold War

The U.S. and China are increasingly rival superpowers—albeit deeply interdependent frenemies—and that has spread into tech innovation as well.
President Donald Trump and China's President Xi Jinping leave a business leaders event at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

President Donald Trump and China's President Xi Jinping leave a business leaders event at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

The great rivalry of the 20th century, at least from the America perspective, was between the United States and the Soviet Union. Geopolitical chroniclers see the great rivalry of the 21st century as between the U.S. and China. In the nine months between his inauguration and 9/11, President George W. Bush advanced the idea of China as America's peer competitor. President Barack Obama executed the "pivot to Asia," based on the argument that, while the U.S. was mired in the Middle East, the most important global shifts were taking place in Asia. Today, the U.S. and China are increasingly rival superpowers, albeit deeply interdependent frenemies.

China experts and U.S. foreign policy pundits divide into two broad camps as to how this rivalry will pay out. One school sees China expanding its global reach through its "belt and road" initiative, building infrastructure and influence from Beijing to Berlin by both land and sea, as well as investing and cultivating relationships throughout Africa and Latin America. China's leadership has the luxury of long-term thinking; it excels at patient, long-term strategy. The U.S., meanwhile, is actively pulling back from the world, deliberately alienating allies and turning its back on the rules-based international order it has invested in so deeply since 1945.

The second group focuses more on weaknesses in China: huge demographic change as China ages rapidly and has a much smaller workforce to support elders due to decades of the one-child policy, finally relaxed in 2013. Moreover, as many as 30 million young Chinese men could be missing a mate, due to widespread parental preferences that their one child be a son rather than a daughter. As Chinese growth slows and the leadership tightens the grip of one-party rule, the argument goes, the government will face repeated waves of social unrest. Chinese investments abroad will generate as much resentment as influence, potentially leading to the same kinds of nationalization of Chinese assets as the U.S. faced in African and Latin American countries in the 1960s and '70s. This view sees the U.S.'s pullback as less of a retrenchment than a recognition that it must encourage its allies, both East and West, to take on more active roles in upholding a multipolar global and regional order. If the institutions of 1945 cannot be updated, then they must be bypassed, or at the very least surrounded with newer power structures.

These narratives dot op-ed pages and grace the covers of foreign policy journals. But turn to the tech world, and the story shifts. Experts and futurists focused on the rise of artificial intelligence as the next world-shifting technology—on par with the steam engine, electricity, and the digital revolution—see both China and the U.S. leaving other countries far behind. They are the global duopoly in A.I., operating through what futurist Amy Webb calls "the big nine" tech companies that are leading A.I. research: Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, IBM, Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent. Given the tremendous amount of both resources and above all data—the "oil" of the A.I. age—necessary for machines to learn accurately, the U.S. and China will be the only nations that can really compete. Their rivalry will continue, but the competition will be about access to data and the ability to lock people, corporations, and governments into gated A.I. communities, as Joshua Cooper Ramo predicts in The Seventh Sense.

Enter Kai-Fu Lee and his book AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order. Lee was born in Taiwan, educated in the U.S. beginning in middle school, founded and ran Google China, and is now chief executive officer of Sinovation Ventures, a venture capital firm investing in the next generation of Chinese high-tech companies. Lee is a veteran of both Silicon Valley and the Chinese tech scene. He systematically unpacks and refutes all the arguments about why the U.S. will continue to beat China in A.I. He predicts that the next phase of A.I. will be much less about invention than implementation, where the Chinese have an edge. In addition, he claims, the Chinese tech work ethic puts Americans to shame, and the far greater competition among start-ups in China requires teams to be more attentive to customizing their products for users while operating on razor-thin profit margins. In short, he claims, "the skillful application of AI will be China’s greatest opportunity to catch up with—and possibly surpass—the United States."

Webb's new book, The Big Nine: How the Tech Titans and Their Thinking Machines Could Warp Humanity, focuses on the ways in which A.I. is integrated with China's geopolitical goals. "China's AI push," she argues, "is part of a coordinated attempt to create a new world order led by President Xi." U.S. A.I., on the other hand, is primarily driven by "market forces and consumerism," a dichotomy that "is a serious blind spot for us all." Eurasia Group president Ian Bremmer and Wired editor-in-chief Nicholas Thompson foresee an "AI Cold War" leading to a world in which countries will have to choose between locking themselves into Chinese or American technology, creating two closed and captive spheres.

Suppose, however, that the A.I. competition between the U.S. and China is submerged in a far larger global competition between man and machine. Suppose the strongest, healthiest, happiest country is the country in which human beings are most in control of their lives. Humans controlled by their machines, by contrast, will feel a pervasive, purposeless malaise, locked into what Webb describes as a "digital caste system" with all their decisions made for them in predetermined and directed lives.

History teaches that humans won’t go quietly into the A.I.-powered nanobot night. The first Industrial Revolution generated a decades-long "romantic rebellion," an era of revolution and innovation in the arts, literature, and politics. The Great Awakening and the Transcendentalist movement were parts of this rebellion in the U.S.

A second romantic rebellion is coming, fueled by a powerful and widespread reassertion of what it means to be human in the face of thinking machines. Interestingly, Lee leads the way, devoting the last part of AI Superpowers to his own realization, after receiving a cancer diagnosis, that his workaholism and fanatic devotion to building tech companies paled beside what was really important in life: "loving and being loved." He concludes that we must devote all our energies to ensuring that A.I. is developed in the service of human flourishing, building new sectors devoted to care, service, and education, putting humans at the center of the A.I. universe.

Turning back to the U.S. and China, the question then becomes which nation is best suited to undertake that mission. Here my money is on the U.S., but only if U.S. tech companies and indeed the U.S. government make some dramatic changes. They all chant the mantras of diversity and inclusion, while doing almost nothing about actually changing their ranks, as Webb documents.

They say that they believe that diverse points of view and life experiences lead to better decisions, but they do not believe it. And yet they are developing products for white and Asian males at a time when the users of those products are 50 percent female (or more, given that women are more active on social media than men and make the majority of household purchasing decisions) and are ever more heterogeneous racially and ethnically. Problems will continue to arise, which will engender increasing animosity and liability, ultimately resulting in divestment, forced data sharing, and stronger competition.

Yet, assuming that the U.S. does in fact learn how to draw on all of its talent and embrace a national identity that reflects the world, American traditions of individualism, openness, rebellion, and humanism (notwithstanding a national infatuation with STEM) will offer the best chance of harnessing A.I. in the service of humanity rather than of private profits and public power. Or at least a better chance than in China. As Kai-Fu Lee concludes, "the paths to true human flourishing in the AI age will emerge from people in all walks of life and from all corners of the world."

This story originally appeared in New America's digital magazine, New America Weekly, a Pacific Standard partner site. Sign up to get New America Weekly delivered to your inbox, and follow @NewAmerica on Twitter.