America’s Risky Approach to Artificial Intelligence

Beijing’s national obsession is now winning the race to artificial intelligence, allocating billions of dollars to the cause and setting 2030 as the target year to dominate the world. Not to be defeated, President Vladimir Putin of Russia just declared that whoever masters A.I. “will become the leader of the world.”

To be sure, the bold promises made by A.I.’s true believers can seem extreme; today’s A.I. technologies are beneficial only in narrow situations. But if there is even a slight chance that the race to build powerful A.I. will establish the future of the world — and that does appear to be at least a probability — the United States and the rest of the West are taking an astonishingly easy-going and alarmingly risky approach to the technology.

The American tech industry, which makes most of its money in advertising and selling personal gadgets, the plan now seems to be to serve as champions of the West. Those businesses, it is anticipated, will research, develop and disseminate the most significant basic technologies of the future. Companies such as Google, Apple and Microsoft are formidable entities, with great talent and resources that approximate those of small countries. But they don’t have the resources of large countries, nor do they have incentives that entirely align with the public interest.

If the race for formidable A.I. is indeed a race among civilizations for control of the future, the United States and European nations ought to be spending at least 50 times the amount they do on public funding of basic A.I. research. Their model should be the research that steered to the internet, funded by the Advanced Research Projects Agency, generated by the Eisenhower administration and arguably the most successful publicly funded science project in American history.

To their credit, companies like Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Apple are spending substantial money on advanced research. Google has been prepared to lose about $500 million a year on DeepMind, an artificial intelligence lab, and Microsoft has invested $1 billion in its self-governing OpenAI laboratory.