Report Casts Doubt On Claims That The US Is Falling Behind China On Funding AI Research

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  • China’s lack of transparency makes it virtually impossible to determine how much the country is devoting to the research on its massive artificial intelligence apparatus, a security analysis shows. 
  • The report came after the Trump administration published a budget proposal Monday asking for a nearly 70% increase in funding for non-defense AI.
  • American officials argue the increase in funding is necessary to beat China to the punch on a piece of technology some critics worry could be used to violate human rights. 

It is not possible to determine if China is plowing more funding into artificial intelligence research than the United States, a nonprofit security analysis group noted in a report Wednesday.

China’s lack of transparency in how the communist nation funds non-defense AI makes it virtually impossible to determine if the country is pulling ahead of the U.S. on such technology, Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA) suggested in an analysis of China’s expenditures.

“Considering the challenges of data availability associated with the funding mechanisms we have investigated, we find that it is not possible to credibly estimate the amount of China’s broader government expenditures on non-defense AI R&D,” the report noted.

National Natural Science Foundation (NSFC) and National Key R&D Programs (NKP) are the only Chinese agencies that provide data on such financing, IDA noted. “Comprehensive data may not exist” on such financing, the group noted after highlighting the opacity of China’s other funding arms.

NSFC and NKPs are responsible for 10% of the $60 billion China spent on non-defense AI research in 2018, IDA noted. (RELATED: REPORT: Chinese Big Tech Is Using Zimbabwe Citizens As Guinea Pigs To Identify And Track Black People)

“The NSFC and the NKPs are responsible for only about 10 percent of the $60 billion that the Chinese central and local government expended on non-defense R&D in 2018,” the Virginia-based group wrote.

June 28, 2019 -- China's President Xi Jinping (R) shakes hands with US President Donald Trump before a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Osaka. - From the Arab Spring to bloodletting in Syria, from Obama to Trump, from terror in the streets of Paris to Brexit, the 2010s began with hope for a more equitable world, and end with a slide towards nationalistic populism. (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

China’s President Xi Jinping (R) shakes hands with US President Donald Trump (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

The report added: “We find it unlikely that the remaining 90 percent of China’s non-defense R&D portfolio can be analyzed at a similar fidelity as the 10 percent that we and CSET have investigated.”

IDA’s report came as the Trump administration increases spending on AI research.

President Donald Trump’s 2021 budget includes a proposal granting more than $850 million for AI research, marking a roughly 70% increase over the president’s 2020 budget. Trump also wants to plow $25 million into so-called quantum computing, a super computer network designed to make intercepting digital information more difficult for bad actors.

“It’s imperative that the U.S. continues to lead in technologies like AI,” U.S. Chief Technology Officer Michael Kratsios told The Washington Post on Tuesday during the budget rollout.

Kratsios is the Trump administration’s point-man on rebutting China’s perceived advantage in the tech field.

Kratsios added: “We see others using artificial intelligence to track their people, to imprison ethnic minorities — this is something that does not align with American values.”

China is reportedly pioneering state-wide use of the kind of facial recognition technology that critics say violates human rights.

China’s tech titans are proposing standards inside the United Nations’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU) for facial recognition, video monitoring and vehicle surveillance, among other cutting-edge tech developments, Financial Times reported in December 2019. Such standards allow China to grow out its global influence on AI.

The Chinese government, for instance, built and financed a $200 million complex holding the African Union (AU) in Ethiopia. The building was completed and handed over to the Ethiopian government in January 2012. Media reports have since cast a negative light on China’s intentions.

France’s Le Monde published an investigation in January 2018 showing that from 2012 to 2017, servers based inside the AU’s headquarters were transferring data every night to unknown servers in Shanghai. It was also reported at the time that microphones hidden in desks and walls were detected and removed during a sweep for bugs.

“Our study indicates that estimates of Chinese AI R&D are not credible and not to be compared with the proposed U.S. budget for AI R&D,” IDA spokesman Herman Phillips told the Daily Caller News Foundation in a statement largely reiterating points made in the report.

UPDATE: This article has been updated to include a statement from IDA noting that estimates of China’s financing of AI research cannot be compared to proposals made in the U.S. budget, which includes an increase in funding for AI technology.

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