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MIT professors sound alarm on US falling behind on AI

Ethan Wolff-Mann
Senior Writer

The U.S. is locked in a race when it comes to advanced technology like artificial intelligence and machine learning – chiefly against China. 

Speaking about technological progress from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, MIT Sloan’s Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee pointed out how inextricably linked the AI race is with immigration policies and government investment – and particularly the red tape that hinders smart people from coming to the U.S.

AI and machine learning are thought of technologies that will fundamentally reshape productivity and growth. Companies from around the world from Amazon to Google as well as more mundane companies in manufacturing are employing these technologies. According to Accenture, within five years AI will drive “significant innovation” and “unleash new levels of human productivity and creativity.”

Brynjolfsson said the U.S. is still the leader in developing these modern technologies — and commercializing them. However, other countries are investing far more with governmental support than the U.S., which could cause problems.

“The key is to not lose the position that we have,” said McAfee. “When the world’s most intelligent, ambitious, and tenacious people in this field want to come to America to build their lives and careers and we put this Kafka-esque barriers in their place... if our president is on board, let’s get these people here.”

The U.S. is competing with China when it comes to AI, machine learning, and 5G. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP / Getty)

A few of the Democratic presidential candidates have highlighted AI and automation as a key area the U.S. must invest more in. The U.S. is in danger of lagging behind in AI research, Andrew Yang has said. At the Democratic debate last June, Pete Buttigieg said, “China is investing so that they could soon be able to run circles around us in artificial intelligence, and this president is fixated on the relationship as if all that mattered was the balance on dishwashers.”

Attracting the right people

Before going to an event at the White House, Brynjolfsson said he asked his students what message they wanted him to communicate. They cited these barriers to immigration.

“Most of our students come from other countries,” Brynjolfsson said. “When we attract other smart people, that makes [our smart people] smarter.”

The pair of technology researchers noted that all of this is impacting competitiveness and the lead the U.S. has in this AI race along with the fact that the government isn’t investing enough money in the basic technologies. 

“If you really wanted to handicap America you’d cut funding in basic research in these fundamental disciplines, cutting off this supply of amazing talent,” said McAfee. “You’d do these things if you were on the other side of this competition.”

Brynjolfsson was quick to add that even though the U.S. has room for improvement, it is still the leader and the best place to be. 

“We’re doing a lot right,” he said. “We have the best basic research.”

He cited the fact that though China is putting out more publications, the U.S. is still leading in citations, which shows that more people care about the work. But, they cautioned, there’s no guarantee it will always be like this.

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Ethan Wolff-Mann is a writer at Yahoo Finance focusing on consumer issues, personal finance, retail, airlines, and more. Follow him on Twitter @ewolffmann.

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