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This article was published on October 15, 2021

Sorry former Pentagon expert, but China is nowhere near winning the AI race

What's that? I couldn't hear you over the sound of my propaganda alarm going off

Sorry former Pentagon expert, but China is nowhere near winning the AI race

Nicolas Chaillan, the Pentagon’s former Chief Software Officer, is on a whirlwind press tour to drum up as much fervor for his radical assertion that the US has already lost the AI race against China.

Speaking to the Financial Times in his first interview after leaving his post at the Pentagon, Chaillan said:

We have no competing fighting chance against China in 15 to 20 years. Right now, it’s already a done deal.

Chaillan’s departure from the Pentagon was preceded by a “blistering letter” where he signaled he was quitting out of frustration over the government’s inability to properly implement cybersecurity and artificial intelligence technologies.

And, now, he’s telling anyone who will listen that the US has already lost a war to China that hasn’t even happened yet. He’s essentially saying that the US is a sitting duck who’s safety and sanctity is predicated on the fact that China is choosing not to attack and destroy us.

And, let’s be clear, Chaillan’s not talking about a hot war. Per the FT article, he said “whether it takes some kind of war or not is anecdotal.”

This is what you call propaganda.

Here’s why:

  1.  The idea that the US is losing any sort of AI race to China is laughable
  2.  Chaillan’s outrage is purely performative

The score: It doesn’t matter how you measure things, the US is not losing the AI race to China.

Among China’s top AI companies you’ll find Baidu, a business with about a $55B market cap.

Let’s put that into perspective. Google is worth over a trillion dollars. That’s 18 times more than Baidu. And that’s just Google. Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft are also worth a trillion and they’re all AI companies as well.

There is no measure, including talent draw and laboratory size, by which you could say China is even in the same class when it comes to AI companies.

And when it comes to AI research coming out of universities, the US again leads the world by a grand margin.

Not only does the US attract students from all over the world, but it also houses some of the world’s most advanced AI programs at the university level. Between the cognitive research done at places like NYU and Harvard and the machine learning applications for engineering being invented at MIT, Carnegie Mellon, and their ilk, it’s incredibly difficult to make an argument that China’s academic research outclasses the US’.

That’s not to denigrate the amazing work being done by researchers in China, but there’s certainly no reason to believe China’s going to overtake the West in a matter of time by sheer virtue of its academia.

And that just leaves public-sector and military AI. What’s interesting about China is that, nationally, its government gives far more support for AI research than any other nation.

Many experts feel that China’s massive investments in public sector research combined with its authoritarian approach to controlling what the public sector and academia do, could lead to a situation where China leapfrogs the US.

This, however, is conjecture. The reality is that US companies don’t need government investments. Unlike the US government, Amazon isn’t in massive debt to its shareholders. Amazon is one of the most profitable enterprises in the history of humanity.

And there’s no law saying Amazon must work with the US government. It’s free to continue making money hand over fist and pushing the philosophical limits on what wealth is or how economies work whether it chooses to play ball with the Pentagon or not.

The point is this: In China, all research is military research.

The FT article makes it apparent that Chaillan’s real problem is with democracy:

He also blamed the reluctance of Google to work with the US defence department on AI, and extensive debates over AI ethics for slowing the US down. By contrast, he said Chinese companies are obliged to work with Beijing, and were making “massive investment” into AI without regard to ethics.

In some weird “give up your freedoms for the greater good way” his words might make sense. Except for one thing: the one major player in the global AI game that we haven’t spoken about yet is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, more commonly referred to by its acronym DARPA.

DARPA is the US government’s version of the laboratory Q leads in the James Bond universe. It’s always looking for technologies – literally any technologies, no matter how strange or unlikely – to exploit for military use.

But there’s nothing fictional about DARPA or its work. Either DARPA or a DARPA-adjacent agency of similar reform is at the financial heart of thousands upon thousands of university studies and technology projects in the US every year.

For perspective: DARPA literally invented the internet, GPS, and the graphical user-interface.

I mention all of this to point out that there is no domain by which you can say the US is not leading the world in AI. I’m not saying that as a patriot (disclosure: I’m a US citizen who lives abroad and a US Navy veteran). I’m saying it because it’s demonstrably true.

In fairness, Chaillan’s clarified his words since the FT article. On LinkedIn he wrote:

For those who saw this article, I want to clarify one thing. I never said we lost. I said as it stands and if we don’t wake up NOW we have no fighting chance to win against China in 15 years. I also said that they’re leading in AI and Cyber NOW. Not in 10 years as some reports mention.

Of course 750 pages government funded reports always tell us we have more time than we have so no one is held accountable for missing the already past due target.

Those are just common sense fact. We are competing against 1.5B folks here. Either we are smarter and more agile or we lose. Period.

Never let the truth get in the way of a good story eh? Per the FT article:

We have no competing fighting chance against China in 15 to 20 years. Right now, it’s already a done deal; it is already over in my opinion,” he said, adding there was “good reason to be angry”.

The bottom line is that Chaillan’s spreading propaganda. He’s employing a centuries-old racist trope called the “China Bogeyman.” The US has used it for decades to justify its bloated defense budget to the public.

The idea is that US citizens should be scared of China not because of its academic, economic, or military technologies. But because of the sheer fact that there are 1.5 billion people in that country who aren’t Americans.

Chaillan’s using the China Bogeyman and his former positions as an IT boss for the Air Force and the Pentagon as a political tool. Whether his goal is to run for office or a to get a lofty consulting position at a conservative-leaning organization, it’s clear what the purpose of Chaillan’s outlandish statements are: to pressure the public into believing their safety relies on doing whatever it takes to ward off the imminent threat posed by the mere existence of 1.5 billion people in China.

It’s a baseless argument against the development of ethical AI and policies restricting the US from creating and using harmful AI technologies.

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