One Thousand and One Talents: The Race for A.I. Dominance

Introduction

The March 2016 defeat of “Go” world champion Lee Sedol by DeepMind, Alphabet’s artificially intelligent AlphaGo algorithm, will be remembered as a crucial turning point in the U.S.-China relationship. Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute branded the event China’s “Sputnik moment”: a moment of realization among its political and military leaders that artificial intelligence (A.I.) could be China’s key to achieving global hegemony and dominance over the United States.

Since then, China’s government has plowed ahead in developing its A.I. capabilities, with President Xi Jinping calling for his country to become a “world leader”[1] as fast as possible. Given that A.I. technologies could contribute an estimated $112 billion to the Chinese economy by 2030[2], it is no surprise that Beijing believes A.I. to be “a new focus of international competition.”[3]

For the simple reason that China has focused on pragmatic, collaborative policies rather than restrictive, unilateral ones, it is currently on track to overtake the United States in the A.I. race. A.I.’s potentially devastating military applications make the A.I. race not just a struggle for economic dominance, but also a national security threat for whichever State loses the advantage.

While the Biden administration’s readiness to boost research and development (R&D) spending and reverse the previous administration’s assault on U.S. alliances is a promising first step towards combating this technological challenge, much more is necessary to ensure that the United States’ technological capabilities do not fall behind those of rising powers.

To hold the line, the United States must leverage its historic alliances with Europe, Australia, and Southeast Asia to pool R&D funding into a multilateral A.I. research group. By creating incentives for scientists across the globe to collaborate together on U.S.-led A.I. development, the United States can ensure that its allies and partners maintain a technological edge over China long into the future.

A.I. Scare

In addition to its commercial benefits, the rapid development of A.I. will also advantage China by adding a potentially devastating tool to its cyberwar arsenal. Concerns about weaponized A.I. have recently been raised by the United Kingdom’s Government Communications Headquarters. Their 2020 report claimed that military A.I. would facilitate the rapid adaptation of malware and “require a speed of response far greater than human decision-making allows,” thus making it difficult for countries to defend against it with current software. The conclusion that many experts have drawn is that the threat of A.I. cyberattacks necessitates the development of defensive A.I. by countries at risk of being targeted.

This threat is not merely theoretical; indeed, China has repeatedly indicated its intention to leverage new technologies like A.I. for offensive purposes. From a 2010 hack of Google by a group with ties to China’s People’s Liberation Army to a suspected cyberattack on Australian political institutions in 2020, it is clear that China will not shy away from utilizing the military applications of its emerging technologies.

In fact, China’s 2017 “Next Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan” made this explicit. The report called for enhancing A.I. “civil-military integration” by establishing lines of communication and coordination between research institutions, private companies, and the military. Given that any future A.I. cyberattacks could be aimed at U.S. allies and interests, it is vital that the United States prioritizes the development of its own A.I. capabilities to defend against novel techniques.

Unfortunately, research shows that the United States is somewhat unprepared for incoming attacks. While China funneled an estimated $70 billion into A.I. in 2020 (up from $12 billion in 2017), the United States government devoted only $4.9 billion—a quarter of what was allocated to the Chinese port of Tianjin  for A.I. development alone. It was encouraging to see the Trump administration unveil its “American A.I. initiative” in response to China’s 2017 plan – albeit with a 19 month delay – yet this was only a first step in the right direction.  A multilateral strategy is also necessary to prevent China from overtaking the United States in a crucial sector which has the potential to tip the global balance of power.

The Xi Doctrine

The forward-leaning policies initiated by President Xi Jinping have led to many advancements, accelerating China’s A.I. program and imperiling U.S. national security in the process. One of Xi’s most effective initiatives has been the so-called “thousand talents” plan, which offers high salaries and tempting benefits to scientists and researchers who agree to work with China on emerging technologies.[4] The plan has been enormously successful: a CIA official estimated that as many as 10,000 scientists from around the world have participated.

Its potential to grant China a strategic edge over the United States and its allies has also led the U.S. Senate to label the program a threat to American interests. Concerns center around the risk that U.S.-based scientists participating in the plan could transfer research achievements from American laboratories to Chinese ones, thereby accelerating Chinese A.I. development at the United States’ expense.

Instead of mitigating the issue, Trump era policy responses exacerbated China’s lead by focusing on increasing A.I. export restrictions. In an attempt to prevent the outflow of sensitive military technologies to China and other hostile states, the U.S. Department of Commerce imposed restrictions on the exports of A.I. technologies. Far from giving the United States a competitive edge, the policy likely stymied A.I. investment by requiring businesses to obtain licenses, a requirement which elongates the export process and imposes high compliance costs on struggling startups. Proof of these policies’ damaging effects came in 2017 when, for the first time ever, Chinese A.I. startups received a greater share of global venture funding than U.S. startups received.

The Washington Pact

In order to improve U.S. A.I. policy, it is vital that the Biden administration understands two points. First, greater R&D spending is necessary to ensure that the United States can keep up with China on A.I. For the most part, the new administration has embraced this: Biden’s campaign reiterated former Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s assertion that the United States must boost tech R&D because “China is on track to surpass the U.S. in R&D.” It even went on to claim that China’s main reason for investing in new technologies was to “overtake American technological primacy and dominate future industries.”

Second, because American allies are themselves investing heavily into A.I., it is prudent to adopt multilateral solutions which leverage the United States’ historic alliances as opposed to unilateral “America first” responses. For instance, Germany’s “A.I. Made in Germany” plan has allocated €3 billion to A.I. research over the next five years, while France’s “A.I. for Humanity” initiative has injected €1.5 billion into the sector. To balance against China’s advancements, the United States should take advantage of these alliances and ensure that global investments go into developing A.I. capabilities across the broader liberal democratic sphere.

This second necessity does not appear to have received as much attention from the Biden administration so far. Despite its general recommitment to multilateralism through rejoining the Paris Climate Accord, reprioritizing NATO, and calling for a “Summit for Democracy,” the Biden administration has largely overlooked the idea of multilateral cooperation on A.I. research.

To match the Chinese technological challenge, the United States must establish research initiatives alongside its historic allies which will benefit U.S. A.I. development. This will have the effect of protecting U.S. national security long into the future by guaranteeing that the United States retains the edge over China in crucial A.I. innovations.

At the center of this policy should be an upgraded equivalent of China’s “thousand talents” scheme that would be run as a joint initiative between America and its allies. The European Union, United Kingdom, Australia, and Japan’s determination to invest heavily into A.I., paired with their historic ties to the United States, suggests potential for large-scale multilateral research collaboration led by the United States.

The Biden administration should therefore suggest the foundation of a multilateral research program—call it “One Thousand and One Talents”—with the aim of attracting the best A.I. specialists from around the globe. Participating governments would funnel their annual A.I. budgets into the scheme in order to fund research projects with important military and commercial applications. The program would ensure that salaries would be directly competitive with China’s “thousand talents” program and that incentives would be put in place to make the Western alternative more attractive than the Chinese one. Like NATO, U.S. leadership would be justified by its status as the main benefactor of the scheme.

The emphasis on multilateralism as a response to U.S.-Chinese competition should come as no surprise. As Princeton professor John Ikenberry writes, the key thing for U.S. leaders to remember when dealing with China is that “it may be possible for China to overtake the United States alone, but it is much less likely that China will ever manage to overtake the Western order.” It is no different with A.I.

Conclusion

The new technological challenges facing America call for a far-sighted and judicious foreign policy worthy of the world’s greatest superpower. While China may have the advantages of unrestricted State investment and well-planned incentive programs, it lacks alliances that run as deep as  the NATO friendships the United States has long depended on. To overcome current Chinese advancements in A.I., the United States must unite with its partners around the world in order to increase the talent, funding, and skill available to it.

The proposed “Thousand And One Talents” research scheme would boost the United States’ competitiveness vis-a-vis China by pooling the resources of some of the wealthiest and most technologically advanced nations into U.S.-led A.I. development. Given the inevitability of China’s rise, multilateral cooperation with like-minded democracies is the only way of ensuring that the U.S. does not face an existential security threat in the future.

The Biden administration must rise to the challenge by uniting with U.S. allies to compete with China on A.I. It is too risky to go it alone.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this essay received an honorable mention in New America’s Reshaping U.S. Security Policy for the COVID Era essay competition. 

[1] Quoted in Strittmatter, Kai, We Have Been Harmonized: Life in China’s Surveillance State, p.165

[2] Ibid, p.166-167

[3] Quoted in Ibid, p.166-167

[4] Strittmatter, Kai, We Have Been Harmonized: Life in China’s Surveillance State, p.171

Image: AI (artificial intelligence) security cameras using facial recognition technology are displayed at a stand during the 14th China International Exhibition on Public Safety and Security at the China International Exhibition Center in Beijing on October 24, 2018. (Photo by NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP via Getty Images)

 

About the Author(s)

Lucas Irwin

Lucas Irwin is a sophomore at Princeton University majoring in Computer Science with minors in Public Life and Statistics & Machine Learning.