Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt has called on the American government to invest more in artificial intelligence (AI) research and development. He has warned that China is pulling ahead of the US in AI R&D. He said the US lacks a long-term plan and adequate government funding to win the race.
"China is on its way to surpass us in many, many ways, and they're cleverly run in a way that's different from the way we would ever want to run," Schmidt said speaking on a Bipartisan Policy Center webcast. "We need to take them seriously. They’re going to end up with a bigger economy, more R&D investments, better quality research, wider applications of technology, and a stronger computing infrastructure."
Schmidt served Google as a CEO between 2001 to 2011. He is currently chair of the Defense Innovation Advisory Board under the US Department of Defense.
Eric Schmidt warns the US of Chinese AI surge
It's no secret that China wants to topple the US as a global economic superpower. The Chinese government has been open about its ambitions. It announced the Belt and Road initiative in 2013 with aims to strengthen connectivity with the world. As of October last year, the plan has already touched 138 countries covering some 4.6 billion people (nearly 61 percent of the world's population).
This effort involves a significant investment in next-gen technologies including AI, with investments in local AI talent and research. China now aims to soon overtake the US in AI and leverage that lead to become a dominant trade and commerce center.
The authoritarianism of the Chinese government plays to its benefits. The US can't have the same model, giving China an upper hand from a strategic point of view. As Schmidt says, the Chinese model is "incompatible with the way America works."
However, he still sees the benefits of it. "I'm not saluting it, I'm not endorsing it in any way, but I'm telling you to take it seriously. It has benefits from the standpoint of the strategic execution," Schmidt says.
The US needs to double down AI spending
Schmidt believes a world where China controls AI and trade would not be a very nice place to live. He urges the US government to agree on a long-term, well-funded plan to counter the Chinese surge. The US reportedly currently invests only 0.7 percent of GDP on scientific research and development funding. That's apparently the lowest percentage since the 1960s. For reference, the US spent 3.4 percent of GDP on defense in 2019.
Spending on space research and development also rose to two percent of GDP in recent years. Schmidt says the US needs to double down on tech R&D spending over the next five years. He adds that the Trump administration's current approach of going into a trade war with China and putting sanctions and executive orders on Chinese companies isn't the best way to stay ahead of China.
Instead, the US needs to step up its efforts and leave China behind. It's the good old theory that you don't have to bring others down to win a race. Instead, you should try and lift yourself up.
Trump's actions are in part a response to China's strategy of demanding intellectual property of American companies in exchange for allowing them to do business in the country. However, all these trade stand-offs and sanctions may not be fruitful in the long run. China is already attracting and retaining global talent. Depriving the country of American tech would further enable it to be self-sufficient.
Representative Will Hurd believes the US needs to develop strategies to attract foreign talent more. "If you want to steal our technologies, we're going to steal your engineers – I want the best engineers coming to the United States," he said. Schmidt echoed that sentiment.
China may have gained a healthy lead in the AI race, but there's still enough field for the US to play. However, if the US government doesn't act now, China will pretty much be running the show from now on.