Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The AI Arms Race: Why are American Companies Helping China?

The CCP’s Data Security Law comes into effect on the first day of September, and with it, more control of critical research and information.

Artificial intelligence (A.I.) will change our lives in ways we can hardly imagine. In fact, it already has. It can detect voices, detect smells, detect gunshots, detect illnesses, identify gas leaks, register our emotions, and orchestrate drone deliveries in the U.S. as well as drone strikes in Afghanistan. The less said about the latter, the better.

If you’re not concerned about the future of A.I., then perhaps you should be. Elon Musk, a man who knows more about A.I. than most, believes it poses an existential threat to humanity. According to the entrepreneur, the lack of regulatory oversight, both at home and abroad, is leading us down a perilous path. Then again, Musk also referred to Dogecoin as the future of crypto, so maybe it’s best to take his warnings with a generous serving of salt. Whatever your thoughts on the future of A.I., however, one thing is indisputable: advanced technology in the wrong hands should concern us all.

Speaking of which, why are so many American research labs specifically dedicated to A.I. situated in China? According to a recent report published by the Center for Security and Emerging Technology at Georgetown University, many of the world’s leading A.I. companies are American. They include Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, IBM, and Microsoft. Together, according to the report, the sextet “spend over $76 billion on R&D annually, and their collective market capitalization stands above $5 trillion.” But as their business models are globalized, these companies “receive less than half of their total revenue from the U.S. market.”

Not surprisingly, all six look overseas to increase their profits. More specifically, they look to China. As the report notes, at least 10 percent of their A.I. research labs are based in China. This is a problem on many levels. The report warns that “state competitors and non-state actors” have access to the research findings, “a fact that risks eroding the conventional overmatch to which our nation has grown accustomed.”

As researchers Klon Kitchen and Bill Drexel recently discussed, there are obvious dangers to conducting A.I. research in China. The Chinese regime, hungry for data, will soon have access to the research findings of both Google and Microsoft. The CCP’s Data Security Law, which comes into effect on the first day of September, will give government officials greater access to data held by all companies, including foreign companies. All data will be classified as “core state” data. Anyone familiar with A.I. knows that data is the primary fuel to its development. Without data, there is no advancement in A.I. Not only is Microsoft’s Beijing-based Research Asia Lab one of the largest in Asia, according to the pair, this facility is, in fact, “the single most important institution in the birth and growth of the Chinese AI ecosystem over the past two decades.” Meanwhile, the duo warn that the Google A.I. China Center is manned by a team of elite researchers heavily supported by “several hundred China-based engineers.”

From September on, any companies based in China that send “important data” overseas will be fined and may have their business licenses revoked. For the likes of Google and Facebook and Microsoft, and any other technology companies that rely heavily on the Chinese market for revenue, failure to comply could prove to be catastrophic.

Then again, compliance could prove catastrophic also. After all, artificial intelligence is very much the future of warfare. Last year, the Federation of American Scientists published a paper outlining the ways in which the Chinese regime was firmly seizing “the strategic initiative.” By 2030, it’s expected to be the world-leader in A.I. Of course, as you are no doubt aware, the regime already uses A.I. to domestically surveil its citizens and subject them to a dehumanizing social credit system. Now, it’s using the same technology to bolster its cyber capabilities and military might.

With so many of the United States’ finest A.I. research firms deeply rooted in China, there is reason for concern. In 2015, more than 30,000 A.I. and robotics researchers signed an open letter that included the warning: “If any major military power pushes ahead with A.I. weapon development, a global arms race is virtually inevitable, and the endpoint of this technological trajectory is obvious: autonomous weapons will become the Kalashnikovs of tomorrow.”

Unlike nuclear weapons, A.I. weapon development requires “no costly or hard-to-obtain raw materials,” meaning “they will become ubiquitous and cheap for all significant military powers to mass-produce.” As the authors of the letter noted, autonomous weapons, which are fueled by A.I. technology, “are ideal for tasks such as assassinations, destabilizing nations, subduing populations and selectively killing a particular ethnic group.” The Chinese regime, lest we forget, is already “selectively killing an ethnic group” in Xinjiang, and is fast becoming an unstoppable force.

The recent fall of Kabul brought down the curtain on 20 years of American failure in Afghanistan; it also brought down the curtain on the idea of traditional warfare. Very soon, goat herders with Kalashnikovs will be replaced by the “Kalashnikovs of tomorrow.” With Facebook, Microsoft, and other major companies based in China, unfathomable amounts of valuable research findings will soon be handed over to the Chinese regime.

As the author David B.H. Denoon demonstrates in his new book, China’s Grand Strategy, the attacks of the future will come through cyberespionage and technological advancements, more than hand-to-hand (or stick-to-stick) combat and gunfire. Warfare is becoming far more strategic than tactical. Monopolizing resources, for example, is an ingenious way of weakening the enemy. We see this already with Beijing’s control of the 5G industry, as well as its desire to purchase cutting-edge chip-making equipment from the Dutch. Cybercriminals, too, are already benefiting from advancements in machine learning and automation. Along with Russia, China is home to some of the most proficient cybercriminals in the world.

Although the United States can do little to stop the Chinese regime from further advancing its A.I. capabilities, incentivizing the likes of Apple and Microsoft to extricate themselves from China would be a welcome start.

John Mac Ghlionn is a researcher and essayist. His work has been published by the likes of National ReviewNew York PostSouth China Morning Post, and the Sydney Morning Herald. He can be found on Twitter at @ghlionn.