Don’t Think of AI Advancement as an Arms Race

In the Dr. Seuss tale The Butter Battle Book, a farcical tale is told of two antagonistic neighbors—the Yooks and the Zooks—who enter into an arms race and go to war over a disagreement about whether to eat bread with the butter side up or down.


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The book is notable for, among other reasons, its creative and imaginative depictions of increasingly advanced technologies applied to the escalating conflict.

The book represents a common theme throughout human history of new technologies being adapted to military use and leading to a potentially civilization-threatening conflict. The rise of nuclear technology in the middle of the 20th century is an obvious example.

Washington Post writer, Justin Sherman, implores readers to, “stop calling artificial intelligence research an ‘arms race.'” Sherman notes that this characterization—particularly as it relates to investment in AI by the United States and China—is manifested “in op-eds, news articles and television segments. It’s in books, think tank pieces and government documents,” but argues that such a characterization is both wrong and dangerous. Here’s why:

There Are Many Areas of Overlap and Cooperation

We’re talking specifically about the United States and China here. Sherman writes that there are billions of dollars flowing in each direction between the United States and China when it comes to investment in each other’s companies researching and developing artificial intelligence (AI) technologies.

Similarly, there are numerous partnerships between American and Chinese businesses and research institutions working together to advance AI.

AI is Not a Single Technology

To think of AI in terms of an arms race is to ignore the fact that it has many applications. “From recognizing a face to detecting skin cancer to assessing a convict’s likelihood of recidivism, different applications of AI have different properties and different sets of training data,” Sherman writes.

AI is Not a Zero-Sum Game

Relatedly, there are many areas where advances in AI can benefit both the United States and China equally. Sherman gives the example of improved public health practices and outcomes that can improve the quality and quantity of life for both countries without any negative consequence to the other.

Fears over AI abound, and these are not only due to the potential for militarization. Economically, there is widespread fear that AI will put millions out of work by making their jobs obsolete.

Sherman is one of many commentators who would encourage us to take a more trusting view of AI’s potential and observe how the technology and its applications develop before rushing to judgment.