ChatGPT has thrown gasoline on fears of a U.S.-China arms race on AI

The race to develop the next generation of AI isn’t just between tech companies like Microsoft and Google — it’s also between nations, which are working furiously to foster and develop their own technology.
Monday - 06/03/2023 05:23 Author: Editors Desk Source: NBC News
The U.S. and China have been making considerable investments in AI.Lauren Schatzman / NBC News
The U.S. and China have been making considerable investments in AI.Lauren Schatzman / NBC News

By David Ingram

Last month, as the tech industry was buzzing about ChatGPT, the research arm of the Defense Department put out an artificial intelligence announcement of its own: An AI bot had successfully flown an F-16 fighter jet in the skies above Southern California. 

The news got relatively little attention, but it revealed an overlooked truth: The race to develop the next generation of AI isn’t just between tech companies like Microsoft and Google — it’s also between nations, which are working furiously to foster and develop their own technology.

An international competition over AI technology is playing out at a time of high tensions between the U.S. and China, and some experts said they fear how high the stakes have gotten. 

“If the democratic side is not in the lead on the technology, and authoritarians get ahead, we put the whole of democracy and human rights at risk,” said Eileen Donahoe, a former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Council and now executive director of Stanford University’s Global Digital Policy Incubator. 

AI has become increasingly intertwined with U.S. geopolitical strategy even as chatbots, digital artwork and other consumer uses are stealing the headlines. What’s at stake is a host of tools that countries hope to wield in a fight for global supremacy, according to current and former U.S. government officials and outside analysts. 

And it’s not just about military weapons like autonomous fighter jets. Some of the same advances that are powering ChatGPT may be useful for such varied geopolitical tools as large-scale propagandamachines, new kinds of cyberattacks and “synthetic biology” that could be important for economic growth. 

“Within the technical community and some parts of the policy community, this race has been going on for quite some time,” said Jason Matheny, CEO of the Rand Corp., a nonprofit that provides research assistance to the U.S. government. 

“But what’s different now,” he added, “is that this is a topic of conversation among the general public. There’s millions of people now who’ve interacted with a large language model” — specifically, ChatGPT and its cousin on Microsoft’s Bing search engine. 

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