From the New York Times opinion page:
Good for Google, Bad for America
At its core, artificial intelligence is a military technology. Why is the company sharing it with a rival?
By Peter Thiel
Mr. Thiel is an entrepreneur and investor.
Aug. 1, 2019
… 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.
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 glance at 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 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 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.