Sometimes you’ve got to admire the shamelessness of Libertarian-loving Silicon Valley — a region that does its best to keep the government at bay and avoid paying taxes yet doesn’t hesitate for a second to ask that same government for help when it runs into trouble.
Such is the moment we’ve reached with the development of artificial intelligence. To accelerate their AI industries, governments around the world are formulating aggressive industrial policies, including investment, technology roadmaps, and regulations.
Silicon Valley, home to many of the current AI giants, has looked around and said “Gulp.”
Worried that their dominance is under siege from all sides, U.S. tech companies dutifully trotted to the White House this week for a summit on AI policy. And so began an awkward dance in which all players tried to reconcile a cultish devotion to the free market with the possibility of developing a more centralized approach — despite its whiff of soul-killing socialism.
“To realize the full potential of AI for the American people, it will require the combined efforts of industry, academia, and government,” Trump technology adviser Michael Kratsios said to the gathering in prepared remarks.
Later, he clarified that by “combined efforts” he meant the ability to work together, but separately and alone: “Our free market approach to scientific discovery harnesses the combined strength of government, industry, and academia and uniquely positions us to leverage artificial intelligence for the betterment of our great nation. We’ve already made America the best in the world for AI research and development. Our task now is to make sure America stays the best. In the private sector, we will not dictate what is researched and developed. Instead, we will offer resources and the freedom to explore.”
Hooray for the free market and competition! Boo to regulations and Commies!
Except that’s not enough for the U.S tech industry. Because what the industry actually wants is someone to come up with a common game plan that gets everyone working together.
Dean Garfield, president and CEO of the Information Technology Industry Council, said in a statement: “This week’s artificial intelligence event hosted by the White House is an important step to building collaboration between government and industry … In order to maintain America’s leadership on AI, the administration should continue to invest in research and development and advance programs that equip the workforce with skills of the future. We look forward to sharing how we can help advance these priorities and others at the event.”
Meanwhile, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich noted in a blog post: “China, India, Japan, France, and the European Union are crafting bold plans for artificial intelligence. They see AI as a means to economic growth and social progress. Meanwhile, the U.S. disbanded its AI taskforce in 2016. Without an AI strategy of its own, the world’s technology leader risks falling behind.”
Here’s what Trump’s folks said they’d do. They’ve re-created an AI task force. But while they highlighted the 40 percent increase in U.S. government funding for A.I. research since 2015, they didn’t necessarily promise more, only that they’ll designate it as a priority.
Perhaps most disappointing to tech, the government doesn’t have any intention of taking the lead on how A.I. should be developed.
“As we’re making great strides within the administration, to the rest of America often the most significant action our government can take is to get out of the way,” Kratsios said in his prepared remarks. “Our administration is not in the business of conquering imaginary beasts. We will not try to ‘solve’ problems that don’t exist. To the greatest degree possible, we will allow scientists and technologists to freely develop their next great inventions right here in the United States.”
Again, Krzanich and others were looking for more, and they highlighted efforts abroad.
“China’s plan, for example, includes measurable objectives and detailed direction on specific areas of focus,” Krzanich wrote. “This is backed by significant public-private funding commitments, as well as industry-government alignment on direction. The EU’s strategy provides deliberate direction to avoid regulation while investing in R&D. It offers a clear focus on greater investment, preparation for socio-economic changes, and formation of an ethical and legal framework. Japan, India, France, and others are adopting similar strategies. Industry has partnered with many of these governments to develop their plans; we stand ready to work with the U.S. government in the same way.”
The good news for U.S. tech companies is that Trump appears happy enough to refrain from meddlesome regulations that might safeguard privacy. The other bright spot was likely the promise by Kratsios that the Trump administration stands ready to help American workers who are displaced by AI.
That means Silicon Valley doesn’t have to worry too much about the job-killing implications of AI or its other social impacts because the government will (maybe) clean up that mess for them. ‘Cause millions of people getting thrown out of work could give AI a bad rap.
Of course, Krzanich and others remember that the U.S. government has indeed intervened and played a critical role in the development of the tech industry. Beyond just funding the original research that led to the developement of the internet, the U.S. government (under Ronald Reagan!) created SEMATECH, a nonprofit semiconductor consortium to help reinvent the country’s chip industry, which at that point was getting thrashed by Japan.
Is such a consortium needed now? It would be a tough sell, given that the U.S. is currently the undisputed leader of AI — as measured by startups and corporate investment. It’s hard to create a sense of urgency around the idea that this is an industry under siege.
And yet Silicon Valley seems to be craving something along these lines, someone who can bring the industry together and help maintain its dominance by creating a neutral ground that fosters common goals. Tech companies look at government-led efforts abroad and think maybe, just maybe, governments can be a force for economic progress and cooperation.
But that doesn’t seem possible in the U.S., where decades of anti-government rhetoric have poisoned any thought of a national industrial policy. Instead, U.S. tech companies will have to find a way to win AI battles through free-market competition and hope that all those other government-led efforts fall flat on their face.