Are the U.S. and China really in an AI race?

A series questioning the AI race concept and how it drives US AI and China policy

It’s tough to miss the “AI race” hype. Media is hooked on it. Lawmakers, national security forces, tech vendors and venture capitalists have locked arms to push the cold war-themed narrative.

But earlier this year, I wanted to understand what was really happening and how we got here from a technical and business perspective. I cover AI and data as senior reporter for Protocol, but there was more to it than that. As someone who was a teen during the Reagan era, talk of a tech battle with the same country whose military attacked and killed civil rights demonstrators in ‘89 – as kids like me watched on tiny analog TVs here in the U.S. – the subject hit home in ways that spoke to me on a level way beyond my journalistic beat.

In Protocol’s new series — Are the U.S. and China really in an AI race? — I explain how, even though an AI-dominant China poses real threats, the AI race paradigm fails to recognize the global collaborations that have sparked AI discovery and how AI tech actually has been built. And I highlight the longtime partnerships that could be upended by a weaponized AI competition against China.

Stories you’ll find in the series:

Inside Eric Schmidt’s push to profit from an AI cold war with China
An exploration of how one of the world’s most prominent and wealthiest private sector tech moguls has planted the seeds of urgent concern that the U.S. is losing a battle against China for AI supremacy, and helping lay the groundwork for an expanding government mission predicated on misconceptions and misaligned incentives. Story includes a detailed map of Schmidt’s cadre of Washington insiders, and his investments in AI companies that have garnered government contracts while he headed influential government programs

Will nationalism end the golden age of global AI collaboration?
Until now, the borderless, open-source software movement that has helped bring together AI developers and tech from the U.S. and China has risen above geopolitical tensions. Could national security crackdowns tear it apart? This story includes an interactive map of US-China AI collaborations featuring tech made by Alibaba, Baidu, Huawei, Google, Meta and more.

Microsoft helped build AI in China. Chinese AI helped build Microsoft.
As “AI race” rhetoric reinforces fear of the U.S. losing dominance on the world stage, Microsoft could face hard decisions surrounding the robust AI ecosystem it helped build in China.

US policymakers could be alienating the Chinese AI researchers they want to attract
Profit goals and nationalistic rhetoric clouded the collaborative environment that helped advance U.S. AI research. Now, as national security advisor Jake Sullivan, Eric Schmidt and others push for the U.S. to recruit AI talent from China, the goodwill fostered among Chinese students and professors in the U.S. could be faltering.

Hopefully you’ll not only read these stories — and listen to the audio interviews with some of my most captivating sources — but share them and discuss the important ideas they address.

About Kate Kaye

Kate Kaye is an award-winning multimedia journalist who has chronicled the evolution of digital media, data use and technology in her reporting for more than 20 years for outlets including Fast Company, MIT Technology Review, OneZero, CityLab, NPR and Advertising Age. One of the first journalists to track how political organizations use voter data and digital advertising (as early as 2002), she is the author of "Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media," a 2009 book covering the digital targeting efforts of the 2008 presidential campaigns.