The U.S., China, AI, and my resolutions for 2019


Since the release of my book, “The Sentient Machine: The Coming Age of Artificial Intelligence,” I’ve had the privilege of addressing dozens of gatherings all around the world. Recently, I spoke to students and professors at a large public university in Shanghai on the topic of artificial intelligence, and at the conclusion of my talk, we began the obligatory question and answer session. But there was something different about this Q&A.

The questions would not cease.

It was almost certainly one of the longest sessions following my AI talks. This was all the more remarkable to me since not everyone in the audience was comfortable conversing in English. It takes quite a bit of courage for a young student to ask a question at a large venue such as this, and even more so in a language in which she or he is not fluent. Yet, the questions kept coming.

A few weeks prior to my Shanghai talk, I was in Beijing. There, too, I saw an intense level of engagement and a remarkably high percentage of attendees queued up outside the auditorium, waiting to have their book signed, taking the obligatory selfie, and asking additional questions. The eagerness was palpable in both places.

There was optimism. There was curiosity about what AI would do for them.

My mind went back to 2015, when I was speaking at the famous SXSW conference in my hometown of Austin, Texas. There was a small, albeit loud anti-AI protest that year, with the refrain “Stop the robots.”

There was fear. There was anger over what AI would do to them.

I would not want to generalize the U.S. and Chinese reactions to AI in this oversimplified manner, but in the interest of space, one is forced into these wanton acts of lossy data compression and must beg the more discerning reader’s pardon.

The point is, fear slows you down. Optimism and curiosity accelerate you. The U.S. is becoming slower, and China is breathtakingly fast. While China has a national AI policy, the U.S. has been unable to put one forth. Investments in AI by the Chinese government dwarf our own. China recognizes that algorithms emanate from brilliant minds, and thus, the number of foreign students in China is increasing, while the exact opposite trend has taken root in the U.S.

If the technology industry’s hearings on Capitol Hill were not sufficient evidence of how disconnected our legislators are with technology and its consequences, perhaps our current attempts to regulate and control our software industry’s ability to export AI are. We seem to think that these controls will ensure our lead. Walls to stop what’s coming in. Barricades to stop what’s going out.

China is exporting all the technology it can because it realizes that exports bring revenue, and revenue means greater R&D investments. Exports drive more usage. Usage grows data, which in turn improves AI (or any product, for that matter).

Despite all these recent trends, there is no doubt in my mind that the United States is the best place to form the ideas and build the technologies that will lead to a better future for humanity. The America of the innovator, the builder, the writer, and the dreamer is alive.

And that brings me to the final point: What are we going to do to improve things?

In the spirit of the new year, here is what I will do. I will continue to speak about AI and its promise to prove that technology can be a force for good so others approach the future with optimism.

I will continue to engage with our leaders in government, business, academia, and beyond to once more adopt the truly American attitude of damning the torpedoes and moving fast. We need to grease the skids of innovation and run through roadblocks.

I will continue to think about a better future and I will work overtime to make it real. I will foster global integration and alliances where I can, whether by sharing ideas with allied leaders in Europe or forming business partnerships in Asia.

And finally, I will not be hopeless. I will continue to believe in a better world. A world where everyone eats well, where healthcare is available instantly to those in need, and where people get from one place to the other without worrying about traffic and pollution. A world where abundant, reliable energy powers our hospitals and homes and drives desalination plants that make fresh water plentiful. A world where technology is once more the great equalizer and where it is the basis for integration. And a world where competition is no longer about one country versus another, but instead about how humanity will be better off tomorrow than it was yesterday.

I don’t know if I will ever live in a world like this, but I will continue to believe that it is just around the corner. I will continue to tell myself that the very next thing I do may make a meaningful difference. And so, I will keep working toward that next thing with all the vim and vigor I can muster.

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