China’s capabilities in artificial intelligence are “much closer than I thought” to catching up to the U.S., former Google CEO Eric Schmidt told Nikkei Asia, stressing that America will not succeed without a “very strong partnership with our Asian friends”.
In an online interview, Schmidt, now chair of the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, said China is closing in on the U.S. in certain areas of AI and quantum computing — faster than his previous estimate of “a couple of years”.
“That’s a really, really big deal,” he said.
Schmidt stepped down as executive chairman of Google parent Alphabet in 2018. He was nominated as the committee chair in 2019 to make AI-related policy recommendations to the president and Congress.
The commission’s final report, released in March, warned that “if the United States does not act, it will likely lose its leadership position in AI to China in the next decade and become more vulnerable to a spectrum of AI-enabled threats from a host of state and non-state actors”.
To win the tech competition with China, the U.S. must maintain its lead in “strategic” areas such as AI, semiconductors, energy, quantum computing, and synthetic biology, Schmidt said.
And for that, he said, “we need much closer relationships with Japanese researchers, Japanese universities, Japanese government — the same thing for South Koreans and same thing for Europeans”.
Schmidt suggested establishing a coordinating group in Washington to keep up communication with the Japanese side, and a counterpart team in Tokyo, along with similar arrangements with other partner countries.
“We would like [the] Japanese to have a coordinating group of people inside the Japanese government, who share our view as to what’s important and make sure that the universities are talking to each other, companies are sharing the information, just to make it easy to work together,” he said.
Schmidt also mentioned that the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad — a group comprising the U.S., Japan, India, and Australia — is “a very good group which would help here if there is a permanent structure.” He said that “if the Quad is going to build an institution to make sure that Quad countries are talking to each other, as opposed to just having meetings, then I’m in favor of it”.
Schmidt emphasized that the relationship between Washington and Beijing should not be purely competitive.
There is a “simple belief” that “China is our enemy and we should stop trading with them and stop working with them, and I hear that,” he said. “We think that is a mistake”.
Schmidt described the relationship as a “rivalry partnership,” listing health care and climate change as areas of potential collaboration in nonstrategic areas.
“It is a rivalry, but we also do in fact partner with them on many things,” he said. “You have to look at each of these problems as ‘is it strategic or not'”.
He invoked the rivalry when asked about the growing global backlash against tech giants including Amazon.com, Apple, Facebook, and Schmidt’s own former company, Google. “These gross proposals like breaking them up and so forth, it’s not going to be helpful because it’s going to set us back against China,” he said.
But, he added, “I can imagine relatively small regulatory changes that would improve competition”.