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Ernst: Terminating AI Funding to Our Adversaries

Artificial intelligence (AI) was engineered to make our lives easier but poses the possibility of being twisted into menacing machines that wage war against mankind. At least, it’s a familiar plotline of futuristic fictional fantasies, like The Matrix and The Terminator, but the sci-fi scenario could quickly become a reality if the impressive advances being made today in AI fall into the hands of a rogue researcher working on behalf of an adversarial nation.

Because of this, AI is the modern “equivalent to the ‘atomic bomb’” warns a leading scientist whose work has been supported with tens of millions of dollars provided by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and other government agencies.

“If my country can take the lead in realizing a genuine artificial general intelligence,” this respected researcher says, it “will become a winning hand in international technological competition for my country.”

Despite the financial backing from the U.S. government and American taxpayers, when he says “my country,” he is not referring to the United States, but rather our global rival—the People’s Republic of China. That’s right, folks!

According to an investigation by Newsweek, the research of a scientist “at the forefront of China’s race to develop the most advanced artificial intelligence” was financed with more than $30 million of U.S. taxpayer dollars over the past two decades.

Since 2001, Song-Chun Zhu’s projects have received the backing of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Army, the Navy, and the National Science Foundation (NSF). As recently as 2021, Zhu was the principal investigator on two different DoD grants totaling more than $1.2 million, seeking to develop “high-level robot autonomy” that is “important for DoD tasks” and “cognitive robot platforms” for “intelligence and surveillance systems.”

Even Zhu’s NSF-funded work is described as “the foundation for building a wide range of applications in commercial and defense industry, such as intelligence image search, security and surveillance, autonomous vehicle,” and other purposes.

While amassing “an almost unheard of sum for a statistics professor at a public university” in California, Zhu was doing parallel work in China.

In 2004, he founded a robotics and IT institute in his hometown in China. In 2010, Zhu became a member of the Thousand Talents Plan, the CCP’s recruitment program that steals scientific innovation, transfers technology, and lures scientists to China. Zhu became an advisor at the Beijing Institute of Technology, which supports the Chinese military. In 2020, he returned to China. Today, Zhu is the chief scientist at the Wuhan Institute for Artificial Intelligence—located in the infamous city where U.S. agencies were funding risky research on coronaviruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology that may have caused the COVID-19 pandemic.

Zhu isn’t the only researcher whose work has been sponsored by the Pentagon who is now working for China, either. A chemist, who was part of another grooming program to lure scientists to China, was supported with nearly $4 million from the Army, Air Force, and NSF. And six of the seven investigators involved in a 2020 robotics study funded by DARPA and the Navy are now at the Beijing Institute for General Artificial Intelligence in China.

Clearly, greater intelligence—whether artificial or human—is needed to prevent our defense dollars from advancing China’s ambitions to become the world’s AI superpower.

To make researchers receiving support from DoD more accountable, I authored a law—that the Biden administration has refused to enact— requiring public disclosure of Pentagon projects paid for with taxpayer dollars. Until the law is enacted, it will continue to be difficult to identify DoD collaborations with those closely connected to the Chinese government.

While Congress recently directed the Defense Secretary to enforce compliance with my transparency law, I am also launching an investigation now being conducted by the DoD Inspector General to determine the amount of U.S. defense dollars that may have been sent to labs and research institutions in China over the past ten years. To put a cherry on top, I’m giving my April 2024 Squeal Award to the bureaucrats at DoD who have been blindly bankrolling Beijing’s AI brain trust.

So we don’t end here on an ominous note, I’ll point out that the millions of dollars the Pentagon spent on Zhu’s projects—despite the warning posted outside his old lab warning “Beware of Robot”—didn’t create anything close to an army of killer robots. The real impact of his years of pricey research is difficult to measure, but the most tangible AI assembled in Zhu’s lab may be an android named Tony, capable of folding laundry.

Joni Ernst, a native of Red Oak and a combat veteran, represents Iowa in the United States Senate.