It was Artificial Intelligence week. True to form, Europe released plans to regulate AI while the United States fretted about winning an imaginary AI race with China.

Europe’s Artificial Intelligence Act

“With these landmark rules, the European Commission is spearheading the development of new global norms to make sure A.I. can be trusted” said Margrethe Vestager. The 108-page policy is an attempt to legally define and regulate an emerging technology. Historical experience suggests that this almost always ends up either stifling the object of regulation or missing the target, but the Commission was responding to real political demand for controls on AI applications.

Boasting that its definition is “technology neutral and future proof,” the proposal defines A.I. as “software that is developed with one or more of the techniques and approaches listed in Annex I and can, for a given set of human-defined objectives, generate outputs such as content, predictions, recommendations, or decisions influencing the environments they interact with;” Annex 1 lists three “techniques and approaches: “(a) Machine learning approaches, including supervised, unsupervised and reinforcement learning, using a wide variety of methods including deep learning; (b) Logic-and knowledge-based approaches, including knowledge representation, inductive (logic) programming, knowledge bases, inference and deductive engines, (symbolic) reasoning and expert systems; (c) Statistical approaches, Bayesian estimation, search and optimization methods.” That list of techniques and approaches, the EC admits, will have to be “kept up-to–date in the light of market and technological developments through the adoption of delegated acts by the Commission to amend that list.” One brave soul made an effort to diagram the applicability of the law.

Another China race

A few years ago the development of 5G – a faster wireless technology based on global standards bodies to meet global market demand – was framed in the United States as a “race” between two nation-states, the U.S. and China. We were told we were losing this race, and this was bad. That claim was in turn used to advocate outlandish industrial policy actions and eventually led to sanctions and blockages against leading Chinese 5G equipment manufacturer Huawei.

Now the same playbook is being used to frame “AI” as a “race” with China which we “must win.” The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 established the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence (NSCAI) as an independent Commission. People close to the Biden administration are deeply involved in and supportive of its agenda. Its Chairman is Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google. The NSCAI issued its 2021 final report recently. Building on reports from Schmidt and Harvard foreign policy experts, the inevitable increase of China’s computer and software capabilities is framed as a threat and the rhetoric used to describe the “race” conflates commercial competition, competition for world hegemony, military competition, and values competition (democracy vs authoritarianism). No worries: according to the NSCAI’s website, “This is not a time for abstract criticism of industrial policy or fears of deficit spending to stand in the way of progress.” Given that the Chair of the Commission is a former Google executive and the Vice Chair, Robert O. Work, is a former Deputy Secretary of Defense and Under Secretary of the Navy and now works for defense contractor Raytheon, we are waiting to see whether the Chinese will accuse the U.S. of “military-civil fusion,” which is known to be a scary thing.