CIA competing with China to fund Silicon Valley AI startups

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A man crosses the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) seal in the lobby of CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Photo: AFP/Saul Loeb

The US intelligence community is reportedly upping its investments in Silicon Valley artificial intelligence (AI) startups amid signs that China is also pouring money into such US ventures.

Patrick Tucker, writing for military website Defense One, says agencies like the CIA are worried about Beijing’s investment in US machine-learning companies and how access to such technology may give China a military and economic edge.

Leading the charge from the US side is In-Q-Tel (IQT) a US-based firm that describes itself as a non-profit strategic investor that accelerates the development and delivery of cutting-edge technologies to US government agencies.

“Our model is to put a little bit of pressure at the right spot to influence a company to make sure it develops things that are useful to our customers,” Charlie Greenbacker, IQT’s technical product leader in artificial intelligence and machine learning was quoted as saying. Greenbacker estimated that IQT’s “investments in a given startup generally amount to about one of every 15 dollars the company has.”

Silicon Valley-type AI firms that IQT has invested in include Orbital Insight, a company that analyzes satellite imagery and Primer, which sells a tool that can read and summarize text.

The Defense One article didn’t detail how much China is investing in US AI startups. But it quoted Greenbacker as saying that the entire US government spent US$1.1 billion on unclassified AI programs in 2015 and an estimated US$1.2 billion in 2016.

“Meanwhile, Softbank (a Japanese multinational conglomerate) has a US$100-billion-dollar fund for this. The Chinese government in their most recent five-year-plan has put US$150 billion in this,” Greenbacker said in the article.

Bill to crackdown on Chinese M&As

Bipartisan congressional legislation was introduced in Washington last week that would require the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) to stiffen its scrutiny of foreign firms — including those from China — that want to invest in US businesses.

If passed, the legislation would add thousands of foreign-linked firms to the list of entities screened annually by CFIUS. The crackdown would include Chinese acquisition of US firms specializing in AI, robotics, advanced chips, driverless cars and other tech that have so-called national security implications.

CFIUS is the inter-agency committee that reviews foreign M&As on national security grounds. The panel has the power to block deals.

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