Good for Google, Bad for America

August 05, 2019

Excerpt. “A.I.’s military power is the simple reason that the recent behavior of America’s leading software company, Google — starting an A.I. lab in China while ending an A.I. contract with the Pentagon — is shocking.”

At its core, artificial intelligence is a military technology. Why is the company sharing it with a rival?

[Peter Thiel | August 1, 2019 | NY Times]

A “Manhattan Project” for artificial intelligence is how Demis Hassabis, the founder of DeepMind, described his company in 2010, when I was one of its first investors. I took it as figurative grandiosity. I should have taken it as a literal warning sign, because that is how it was taken in foreign capitals that were paying close attention.

Now almost a decade later, DeepMind is the crown jewel of Google’s A.I. effort. It has been the object of intense fascination in East Asia especially since March 2016 when its AlphaGo software project beat Lee Sedol, a champion of the ancient strategic board game of Go.

Such feats notwithstanding, DeepMind, having now gone on three times longer than the original Manhattan Project, is not clearly any closer to its core goal of creating an “artificial general intelligence” that rivals or replaces humanity. But it is finally becoming clear that, as with nuclear fission before it, the first users of the machine learning tools being created today will be generals rather than board game strategists.

A.I. is a military technology. Forget the sci-fi fantasy; what is powerful about actually existing A.I. is its application to relatively mundane tasks like computer vision and data analysis. Though less uncanny than Frankenstein’s monster, these tools are nevertheless valuable to any army — to gain an intelligence advantage, for example, or to penetrate defenses in the relatively new theater of cyberwarfare, where we are already living amid the equivalent of a multinational shooting war.

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No doubt machine learning tools have civilian uses, too; A.I. is a good example of a “dual use” technology. But that common-sense understanding of A.I.’s ambiguity has been strangely missing from the narrative that pits a monolithic “A.I.” against all of humanity.

A.I.’s military power is the simple reason that the recent behavior of America’s leading software company, Google — starting an A.I. lab in China while ending an A.I. contract with the Pentagon — is shocking. As President Barack Obama’s defense secretary Ash Carter pointed out last month, “If you’re working in China, you don’t know whether you’re working on a project for the military or not.”

No intensive investigation is required to confirm this. All one need do is glanceat the Communist Party of China’s own constitution: Xi Jinping added the principle of “civil-military fusion,” which mandates that all research done in China be shared with the People’s Liberation Army, in 2017.

That same year, Google decided to open an A.I. lab in Beijing. According to Fei-Fei Li, the executive who opened it, the lab is “focused on basic A.I. research” because Google is “an A.I.-first company” in a world where “A.I. and its benefits have no borders.” All this is part of a “huge transformation” in “humanity” itself. Back in the United States, a rebellion among rank and file employees led Google last June to announce the abandonment of its “Project Maven” A.I. contract with the Pentagon. Perhaps the most charitable word for these twin decisions would be to call them naïve.

How can Google use the rhetoric of “borderless” benefits to justify working with the country whose “Great Firewall” has imposed a border on the internet itself? This way of thinking works only inside Google’s cosseted Northern California campus, quite distinct from the world outside. The Silicon Valley attitude sometimes called “cosmopolitanism” is probably better understood as an extreme strain of parochialism, that of fortunate enclaves isolated from the problems of other places — and incurious about them.

A little curiosity about China would have gone a long way, since the Communist Party is not shy about declaring its commitment to domination in general and exploitation of technology in particular. Of course, any American who pays attention and questions the Communist line is accused by the party of having a “Cold War mentality” — but this very accusation relies on forgetfulness and incuriosity among its intended audience.

Since 1971, the American elite’s Cold War attitude toward China’s leaders has been one of warm indulgence. In the 1970s and 1980s, that meant supporting China against a greater adversary, the Soviet Union. What is extremely strange is that this policy of indulgence continued and even deepened after the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991.

A few years after the Cold War ended, American leaders started treating China the way they had treated West Germany and Japan. We tolerated punishing trade deficits in the 1970s and 1980s to support those two allies, and we had strategic reasons to do it. As for building up China in the 1990s and 2000s, America’s generosity was supposed to somehow lead to China’s liberalization. In reality, it led to the transfer of our industrial base to a foreign rival.

In this sense, a zombie “Cold War mentality” never went away — though it certainly stopped making sense. Only recently, with help from Mr. Xi’s decision last year to, in effect, declare himself potential leader for life, has Donald Trump become the first president since Richard Nixon to pay attention and run a reality check on China.

Silicon Valley is not alone in its inattention to geopolitical reality; some on Wall Street have been eager to make excuses for Google’s naïveté. The timing is not coincidental; just this week American officials met their Chinese counterparts in Shanghai to negotiate a trade deal.

The flip side of China’s huge trade surplus has been America’s huge current account deficit. All of the dollars we send abroad that never get used to buy American goods have to go somewhere, and most go through New York’s money center banks on their way to buying financial assets. Since upsetting this imbalance is a threat to profits, Wall Street would prefer to cave on trade and keep Google’s stock price high while they’re at it.

But the banks’ experience of the last few decades of globalization has not been representative. The trade deficits that brought flows of money to Wall Street took jobs and bargaining power away from the median worker.

Wages have been stagnant since the 1970s. The difference between our post-1971 era of globalization and the post-1945 midcentury boom is a breakdown in the relationship between the parts and the whole: An archipelago of inward-looking, parochial places like Wall Street and Silicon Valley have done exceedingly well for themselves while their fellow citizens have been left behind in a stagnant economy.

In the 1950s, the cliché was that “what’s good for General Motors is good for the country.” Google makes no such claim for itself; it would be too obviously false. Instead, Google says it is “committed to significantly improving the lives of as many people as possible”— a standard so vague as to defy any challenge.

By now we should understand that the real point of talking about what’s good for the world is to evade responsibility for the good of the country.

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