The U.S. Race Towards Artificial Intelligence

What do Stephen Hawking, the United States Government, and the Big Five tech companies all have in common? A stake in the rapidly expanding market of artificial intelligence.

Hawking’s interest in AI is ideological, based out of concern for the way AI could shape the future. He believes we should be wary of artificial intelligence, calling for staunch regulations and ethics around all AI growth.

While in some ways Hawking’s warning reads like the newest installment of The Terminator, he has a point. We see the United States Government and the Big Five hastily investing their money in a market that is predicted to grow by 300% in 2017. It begs the question: how can we predict the future AI, and how can ethics keep up with such a quickly growing sector?

Investment in AI isn’t constrained by these questions. Below, a portrait of how AI investment has played out in recent years.

The United States Government and AI

In many respects, artificial intelligence is already playing a big role in our world. In fact, the U.S. government has been investing in AI technology for over fifty years. However, it wasn’t until the end of the Obama administration that Washington, D.C. stepped up its game. From 2015–2016, the federal government spent an estimated 2.3 billion on artificial intelligence research – more than in any other period before.

In May 2016 a subcommittee created the National Artificial Intelligence Research and Development Strategic Plan.

The plan, based on high-level research, is a blueprint for how AI can make American life easier. It envisions a role for AI in efficient national security, and it imagines a future of collaboration between humans and AI.

Silicon Valley Titans

Also influencing the industry are the private investors, lead predominantly by the Big Five: Google, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon and Facebook.

Google’s parent company, Alphabet Inc. is a leader in AI research. Alphabet is responsible for Google Brain, a research team designed to ‘make machines intelligent [and] improve people’s lives.” Alphabet also purchased DeepThought Technologies, which was speculated to cost between $400 million to $650 million.

Then there is Microsoft Ventures, a VC firm created by Microsoft in January 2016 dedicated solely to AI. Microsoft states that the funds for investment are exclusively for “companies focused on inclusive growth and positive impact on society.”

Microsoft Ventures has already funded three start-ups since its inception and has yet to declare how much they have spent.

Apple, renowned for its innovation just as much as its secrecy, is estimated to have invested between $150-$250 million for the Siri Virtual Assistant technology. Additionally, Apple released its first paper based on their AI research in December of 2016.

While this move towards disclosure was refreshing, its speculated that Apple’s secrecy makes it difficult for them to recruit the most promising minds in the field, and is ultimately hurting them in the battle for AI market supremacy.

Amazon AI, like its competitors, has yet to officially state how much they invest. However, its virtual assistant technology Alexa is already extremely competitive. Amazon AI also decided to take a different approach towards funding research, creating the Alexa Fund Fellowship. The fund allows Amazon to partner with universities, providing money and access to the Alexa technology in order to work with the next generation of AI scholars. The Alexa Fund Fellows is already working with students at USC, Carnegie Melon, University of Waterloo, and Johns Hopkins University.

Finally, Facebook. Facebook has not disclosed how much they spend on their investments, regardless the company is determined to dominate this market. Facebook hired a team of 150 who work exclusively on AI technologies and already uses artificial intelligence on their site. They have face recognition software as well as technology that matches a user’s interests with the news on their homepage. According to FastCompany, Facebook tripled their investment in artificial intelligence research since June of 2016.

Working Together on the Future of Artificial Intelligence

The AI race is well underway in the United States with Silicon Valley titans dominating the industry. However, AI research isn’t only about competition. In 2016 The Partnership on Artificial Intelligence to Benefit People and Society was created. The organization is a non-profit founded by Google, Facebook, Microsoft, IBM and Amazon. The Partnership funds AI research, but its primary goal is to become a tool to educate the public on artificial intelligence. The non-profit promotes researching this technology with transparency and ethics, or thematic pillars, as the organization calls them. As of January 2017 not only did Apple join the project, but the organization also partnered with the American Civil Liberties Union, Open AI, the MacArthur Foundation, the Peterson Institute of International Economics, Arizona State University and the University of California, Berkeley.

From the White House to the robotics lab, each institution investing in AI seems to be concerned with ethical research practices. A consideration that might lay Hawking’s reservations to rest, however the fact remains that AI research, and growth, is still unregulated. It is yet to be seen how the Big Five will keep themselves accountable, even with a non-profit backed by unbiased organizations like the ACLU. In terms of the market, if the pattern persists, we will see private industry continue to lead the research while the government might be left having to call on Silicon Valley for support. It’s still a little too soon to tell, but perhaps in a few years we’ll be asking Siri or Alexa what to expect next in this ever-expanding industry.


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