Much like America's commander in chief, China's president avoids giving press conferences. But unlike Donald Trump, Xi Jinping isn't a Twitter junkie. And he doesn't breezily call into morning chat shows to ramble about this or that. So how do Chinese business leaders get insights into their circumspect leader?
For one thing, they peruse his well-stocked office bookshelf. When Xi gave his New Year's Eve address last January, two new titles were spotted. Both were about artificial intelligence: The Master Algorithm by Pedro Domingos and Augmented: Life in the Smart Lane by Brett King.
Of course, maybe Xi never even skimmed the books, although he has a reputation as a voracious reader. But their mere presence reinforced Beijing's message that the Chinese government and the Communist Party — Xi is head of both — view AI as perhaps the key technology that will drive the nation's economic future. Indeed, China has announced a blueprint to become the world's AI leader by 2030, including a three-year action plan that involves tens of billions of dollars in government funding.
No doubt Silicon Valley would love to see such attention and leadership from President Trump. And maybe today's White House meeting on AI between Trump administration officials and executives from more than 40 companies — including tech titans Amazon, Facebook, and Google, as well as other major players such as Goldman Sachs and Boeing — is a start. (The White House science adviser unfortunately won't be there because Trump has yet to fill the position.)
But there's a long way to go. Trump doesn't seem to have made even a single, brief mention of artificial intelligence in his public utterances so far as president. And about the only regular Trump mention of Silicon Valley specifically has been his anti-Amazon tweets, which are really subtweets against CEO Jeff Bezos and his ownership of The Washington Post.
Not that any of this is surprising, of course. Trumponomics has been all about economic nostalgia and trying to reanimate the U.S. industrial economy of the 1950s and 1960s. A Trump speech on "economic revival" last October turned into a paean to the American trucker and how they would benefit from tax cuts — but not a word on how autonomous driving tech will make many of those jobs obsolete. Likewise, a 2016 campaign speech near Pittsburgh focused on the coal and steel industries, not how the Steel City had turned into a hub for robotics research. (Trump's only tweets so far about robots were a pair of disparaging 2016 campaign references to Marco Rubio.)
But even if Trump himself is tech unaware, the existence of this conference shows there are people in the administration who understand AI's opportunity as a transformational technology. And certainly there are those on Team Trump who understand the China challenge, which is why Trump's $50 billion tariff threat against China includes items that benefit from Beijing's industrial policies supporting its emerging tech industry.
The U.S. cannot afford to waste an entire presidential term, much less two, with little to no leadership on AI from the Oval Office occupant. Hopefully corporate America, and especially Silicon Valley, will make this clear today. Beyond that, America's tech leaders need to make sure that if and when Trump's AI awakening happens, he views it as more than just automation that will eventually put long-haul truckers out of work. On that front, Trump's tweet about Amazon being the cause of retailers "closing stores all over the country" is worrisome. Tech disruption, where there can be short-term pain for long-term gain, too easily fits Trump's zero-sum cosmology — all too starkly on display in his views on trade.
Team Trump should also understand that there is no trade policy that will prevent China from moving closer to America on the technological frontier. While Washington should do what it can to make China compete fairly — such as by targeting Chinese firms that use stolen IP or coercively transferred tech — other moves like preventing U.S. firms from opening AI research centers in China would be self-defeating. We want Chinese scientists to add to the global stock of human knowledge. And we want our companies to have access to China's best and brightest.
Most importantly, business leaders should emphasize that America will remain the leading AI power mostly by furthering our own tech progress. That means more science investment, more immigrants, and letting AI flourish with light regulation, especially when it comes to data. And instead of focusing on phase two tax cuts, how about a serious phase one effort on preparing students and workers for an AI future? One good move would be to dig up the Obama administration's 2016 AI prep plan, some of whose recommendations Beijing seems to be following. (Just don't tell Trump where the ideas came from.) Oh, and maybe tell the White House to hire a legit science adviser, ASAP.