The US presidential election next Tuesday will shape the world for years, if not decades, to come. Not only because Joe Biden and Donald Trump have radically different ideas about immigration, health care, race, the economy, climate change, and the role of the state itself, but because they represent very different visions of the US's future as a technology superpower. As a nonprofit, MIT Technology Review cannot endorse a candidate. Our main message is that whoever wins, it will not be enough for him to fix the US's abject failures in handling the pandemic and to take climate change seriously. He will also have to get the country back on a competitive footing with China, a rapidly rising tech superpower that now has the added advantage of not being crippled by covid-19.
This article is part of the Future Agenda, a series from Future Tense in which experts suggest specific, forward-looking actions the new Biden administration should implement. On Wednesday, Feb. 3, at noon Eastern, Future Tense will host an online event to discuss what science, technology, health, and energy priorities the Biden administration should pursue. We still don't have all the technologies we need to address climate change. Fortunately, the incoming Biden administration might have the biggest opportunity in more than a decade to drive innovation in climate-friendly technologies. In December, for example, Kairos Power announced plans to build a prototype of its novel salt-cooled high-temperature nuclear reactor at the East Tennessee Technology Park, a campus of Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
America has successfully launched national innovation missions time and again. These missions have delivered life-saving drugs, sparked the computer and internet revolutions, and put humans on the moon. Most recently, the US government has poured billions of dollars into a national innovation campaign to help pharmaceutical companies develop vaccines and therapeutics for covid-19. Yet the United States has not launched such a mission to counter the gravest threat of our time: climate change. Although a few clean-energy technologies, such as wind and solar power, have reached cost competitiveness with fossil fuels, many more urgently need advances if the world is to achieve net-zero carbon emissions--a herculean feat known as "deep decarbonization."
On July 20, China's State Council issued the "New Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan" (新一代人工智能发展规划), which articulates an ambitious, three-step agenda for China to lead the world in AI. The Chinese leadership recognizes that AI will be critical to its "comprehensive national power" and competitiveness, including in national defense. Through this new strategic framework, China will undertake a "three in one" (三位一体) agenda in AI: tackling key problems in research and development, pursuing a range of products and applications, and cultivating AI industry. China wants to become a "premier global AI innovation center" by 2030. This plan seeks to redress current shortcomings and build up indigenous capabilities in innovation.
The Chinese have a very public, very-deep, extremely well-funded commitment to AI. Air Force General VeraLinn Jamieson says it plainly: "We estimate the total spending on artificial intelligence systems in China in 2017 was $12 billion. We also estimate that it will grow to at least $70 billion by 2020." According to the Obama White House Report in 2016, China publishes more journal articles on deep learning than the US and has increased its number of AI patents by 200%. China is determined to be the world leader in AI by 2030.