US cyber ambassador says China knows how to steal its way to dominance of cloud and AI

Calls on governments to combat 'playbook' that propelled Huawei to prominence

China has a playbook to use IP theft to seize leadership in cloud computing, and other nations should band together to stop that happening, according to Nathaniel C. Fick, the US ambassador-at-large for cyberspace and digital policy.

Speaking at an event hosted by think tank Hudson Institute, Fick said 30 years ago democratic nations felt they had an "unassailable global advantage in telecoms" thanks to the strength of outfits like Ericsson, Nokia, Samsung, Motorola, Bell Labs, Alcatel and Lucent.

But he feels those titans became complacent, governments stopped watching the tech develop, and "I don't think we appreciated or acted on the reality that these technologies were going to be central to our geopolitical standing."

But China noticed. And it "executed a deliberate strategy of IP theft and government subsidies."

"They stole the core intellectual property to begin building next generation wireless networks and then subsidized Huawei and ZTE around the world to do deals at less than competitive terms."

Not that that's still how Huawei operates. Fick argued it has "catalyzed a domestic innovative capacity."

"If you talk to European telecom operators, they'll tell you that the Huawei gear is quite competitive and in some cases better," he said.

The ambassador described China's actions in the telecoms industry as "a playbook" and warned the nation will "run it in cloud computing they will run it in AI, they will run it in every core strategic technology area that matters."

"We need to be very clear-eyed now about not letting that happen."

Fick's preferred response is "the biggest coalition possible" of like-minded nations that could collaborate on technology and use their free markets to spur innovation.

AI is the sysadmin's dream and the strategist's nightmare

Fick also commented on AI – a technology he said might help Reg readers to tame messes made by their peers.

"When you're on the part of the curve where you're connecting a billion things to the internet every quarter, and you're in this sort of happy-go-lucky laissez-faire software developer world where everybody's spinning up virtual machines and writing code and open sourcing things, convenience goes way up and cost goes way down, but you introduce a lot of untrusted code – and all the vulnerabilities that come with that.”

He hopes AI makes some of those efforts more secure.

"One of the applicant good applications of AI that I'm most excited about is using AI to write better software. It’s pretty exciting to see the bug rate go way down."

Fick worries about other aspects of AI.

"The near-term risk that I am most animated by is disinformation and misinformation," he said, "particularly in a political context."

The ambassador expressed fear that the US will soon "embark on a political campaign season now where it is harder than it's ever been to separate truth from fiction, and that could have huge corrosive effects. It could also have a galvanizing effect to help us kind of get our arms around this."

"The most dangerous course of action is the application of these technologies in lethal terms – so autonomous weapons biotechnology, to some extent cyber security, and the applications of AI to do really nefarious things using kind of existing lethal stuff."

Fick therefore suggested AI regulation needs to be a priority, as he believes its capabilities are growing exponentially and governments do not have the luxury of time to devise guardrails. ®

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