Will international rivalries fragment international cooperation in machine learning?

The fear: Countries competing for AI dominance will lash out at competitors. Without the free flow of research, data, talent, and ideas, the field will slow down. Advances in the industry will only benefit the country where they originated, and the worldwide research community will dissolve into clusters of regional cliques.

Behind the worries: Restrictive immigration rules have prevented engineers, scientists, and students from pursuing opportunities across national borders. At the same time, global powers have moved to dominate AI through industrial and trade policy, and to limit its reach through social policy.

  • Earlier this month, the U.S. government tightened restrictions on H1-B visas, on which many tech companies rely to recruit talented workers from overseas.
  • AI researchers from developing countries have also complained about the difficulty of obtaining visas to attend conferences in the U.S. and Canada.
  • China requires companies to physically house their data on servers within the country and to pass a regulatory review before moving any of it overseas.
  • Last year, the U.S. government banned American firms from doing business with top Chinese AI companies. The U.S. has also intensified scrutiny of transactions between American and foreign companies that might have national security implications.

How scared should you be: AI is truly a global effort. The international AI community has a strong tradition of collaboration, and it has built an infrastructure of sharing — including open code, datasets, publications, and conferences — that transcends national boundaries. Yet the aspirations of sovereign states can put the spirit of cooperation at risk. It will take a concerted effort to keep the community alive and thriving, so we can bring the benefits of AI to all people.

What to do:  Governments should heed calls by leading AI organizations to make it easier for researchers to gain visas. Conferences should consider meeting in countries with less restrictive borders. Widespread translations of research papers, particularly those that address AI governance, would be helpful. Efforts to develop international standards for data privacy and use, such as those advanced by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and other groups, would help foster international collaboration in a way that respects individual rights.

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