Big Tech is pushing a ‘national cloud.’ Critics say Big Tech would profit from it.

Big tech has big designs on a big cloud.

A steady drumbeat from some of the most influential executives in the technology industry has emerged in recent months to push the idea that the U.S. government should invest in a “national research cloud” — a hub for U.S. research into artificial intelligence where researchers from academia and smaller tech companies could share data sets and other resources.

It’s an idea that has been backed by a government commission led by ex-Google CEO Eric Schmidt and including executives from Amazon, Microsoft and Oracle, which recommended that the Biden administration create a hub for U.S. research into artificial intelligence. The White House has warmed up to the idea, ordering another report on it due next year with an eye toward competing with China on the development of artificial intelligence.

“We should be able to stay ahead of China. We estimated that we are one to two years ahead of China, broadly speaking, in this area. I hope that’s true,” Schmidt said in an interview with NBC News. 

“Investments that are targeted in research — new algorithms — should be able to keep us ahead,” he said. 

The stakes could be enormous. Some experts in artificial intelligence believe it has the potential to transform the economyautomating some jobs, while creating new ones — and the potential military applications have spurred investment by the Pentagon.

But this month, the idea began getting fresh pushback. Research groups including New York University’s AI Now Institute and Data & Society, a nonprofit technology research group based in New York, say the very tech companies pushing this idea stand to profit from it, because the national hub would likely be housed in the same companies’ commercial cloud computing services.

They say that’s a conflict, and little more than a cash grab by what’s effectively the next generation of military contractors. The plan also could entrench the very same tech companies that President Joe Biden’s antitrust enforcers are working to rein in, these critics say.

“What this essentially is, is a subsidy to large tech companies,” said Meredith Whittaker, a co-founder of the AI Now Institute, a research center for artificial intelligence at NYU.

A former researcher at Google, Whittaker was active within the company in pushing back against its handling of AI ethics. She left in 2019 and has continued to be a consistent critic of how large tech companies handle AI research and its impact.

Whittaker pointed out that the Biden administration pledged in July to rein in a “small number of dominant Internet platforms” that use their power to “extract monopoly profits.”

“We need to break out of these narrow frames that are set by self-interested tech oligarchs,” she said.

Other criticisms from her and fellow researchers are that the government has barely put thought into the privacy issues or potentially harmful influence of ramping up AI research, and that the alleged competition with China to win an AI arms race may be exaggerated in a replay of Cold War panic. 

The idea of a national cloud for AI has been kicking around for years as a way to provide cutting-edge computing power to academic researchers and other people who don’t happen to work at a place like Google or Amazon, which have specialized and lucrative divisions dedicated to cloud computing.

One potential advantage, advocates say, is that a national cloud could be the home for huge, secure sets of data that could help train AI systems. Some Americans fear that Chinese researchers have a leg up in AI development because they already have access to large, government-sanctioned data sets in China.

This month, the AI Now Institute and Data & Society submitted written comments on the idea. They argued that the plan for a national cloud would help big tech companies consolidate power and that a Cold War-style competition with China was misleading and dangerous.

“Winning at whose expense?” Brittany Smith, policy director for Data & Society, said in an interview. She said the federal task force that’s reviewing the idea should consider evidence that large-scale AI systems result in discriminatory treatment, and proceed with caution.

“It’s always just, ‘Go go, go. Launch the thing. Build the thing. Scale the thing,’” she said. Researchers need to take time, she said, “talking about the costs and talking about who’s hurt and why they are considered expendable in this fake race to do things that don’t actually make any sense.”

More skepticism has come from other organizations. The Electronic Privacy Information Center, an advocacy group in Washington, said in written comments this month that the government should “set rigorous restrictions on the influence of companies involved,” in part to protect civil liberties.

Andrew Moore, head of Cloud AI at Google Cloud and a member of the federal task force on the subject, said in an interview that the role of Google and other corporations would be limited in any national effort.

“It will be driven by academics and the government funding agencies that are involved,” he said.

And, he said, it’s important that no single cloud-services provider take on a dominant role. A national cloud would be more like a “multi-cloud,” he said. “We would never want to see a future where researchers were tied to specific clouds. We very much believe in competition, both among the big established cloud providers and many of the other folks that are involved.”

Last year, a bill to develop a national cloud got bipartisan support in Congress as well as endorsements from tech companies and several large research universities.

Another boost came in March, when the federal commission chaired by Schmidt included a national cloud among its recommendations for winning an AI arms race against China. The commission also included Oracle CEO Safra Catz; Andy Jassy, who has since become the CEO of Amazon; and executives at Google and Microsoft.

Representatives for Amazon, Microsoft and Oracle did not respond to requests for comment. The federal government is already a big customer of commercial cloud computing services.

Next up, the Biden administration and Congress are weighing a major investment of money. In June, the White House announced the creation of a task force to help draw up a blueprint for a national cloud — which would officially be called the National Artificial Intelligence Research Resource, or NAIRR.

The task force is due to submit an interim report to Congress in May and a final report in November 2022.

Christin Hakim

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