Policy

The US-Singapore AI pact has China written all over it

An expanded AI and tech initiative with Singapore is part of a broader effort by the U.S. to re-engage Asian countries and reduce their reliance on China for AI development.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore delivers remarks alongside U.S. President Joe Biden in the East Room of the White House on March 29, 2022 in Washington, DC.

One key focus of the expanded U.S.-Singapore pact is a plan to develop ethical AI governance approaches that facilitate interoperable cross-border connections.

Photo: Anna Moneymaker via Getty Images

The White House reaffirmed its mission to increase AI collaboration between the U.S. and Singapore last week. But during those talks, another country was on everyone’s minds: China.

When President Joe Biden hosted Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on March 29, he acknowledged the bilateral strategic partnership between the two nations — and the 5,400 U.S. companies with locations in Singapore. On the sidelines, U.S. Commerce Department representatives met with Singapore officials to expand the countries’ economic efforts related to trustworthy AI, data privacy, digital trade standards and advanced manufacturing. Those efforts build on a previous Memorandum of Understanding, called the U.S.-Singapore Partnership for Growth and Innovation, the two countries signed in October.

Alex Capri, a researcher and consultant studying trade flows and competition in tech innovation who has taught at the National University of Singapore Business School, said the expanded plan is part of a much broader U.S. strategy aimed at China. The partnership is designed to rebalance and re-engage Asian countries including smaller tech powers such as Singapore — “absolutely with the intention of reducing reliance on China for AI development, and also because of the strategic implications,” Capri said. “Singapore is a logical choice as a tech hub.”

The drumbeat in the U.S. to slow China’s mission to dominate AI is growing stronger. Not only are tech industry leaders such as former Google CEO and AI investor Eric Schmidt turning up the anti-China volume in political and defense circles, but also legislators have asked the Commerce Department to further restrict export of AI and other U.S. technologies to companies with connections to China’s military.

One key focus of the expanded U.S.-Singapore pact is a plan to develop ethical AI governance approaches that facilitate interoperable cross-border connections. “One practical example of our digital cooperation is on aligning our respective AI governance frameworks,” said Josephine Teo, Singapore’s minister for Communications and Information. “Companies can expect to deploy AI across borders with greater ease, to seize innovation opportunities while managing the risks.”

In their agreement to expand their partnership, the U.S. and Singapore also announced plans for more collaboration on tech standards and advanced manufacturing. These efforts reflect both nations’ goals to foster data and tech interoperability and connectivity related to digital trade, Capri said.

What all this means practically speaking, from either a geopolitical or a technical standpoint, is not yet clear. But the general sentiment behind official statements reflecting last week’s meetings indicates the countries aim to streamline open data and technology supply chain flows.

“The United States and Singapore affirm the importance of ensuring that critical and emerging technologies foster an open, accessible, and secure technology ecosystem, based on mutual trust, confidence, and respect for a rules-based international order,” Biden and Hsien Loong said in a joint statement. “To this end, we commit to increasing resiliency in our technology supply chains, and developing robust approaches to data governance and security, seeking consistency and interoperability where feasible.”

A Commerce Department spokesperson told Protocol the U.S. and Singapore will compare Singapore’s industry-aimed Minimum Viable Product for AI Governance Testing Framework with a risk management framework in development by the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology to determine how the two might align.

While the U.S. does not have any laws or blanket regulatory regime to address AI governance or related data use, Singapore created its Model AI Governance Framework for ethical AI approaches in 2019, which addresses explainability, fairness and the need for AI to be “human-centric.”

China itself has begun to implement its own rules restricting use of algorithmic recommendation systems. However, the country’s efforts to develop — and in some ways, control — corporate AI and other emerging tech have people throughout Western governments concerned about its use of facial recognition, algorithmic social scoring, flagrant human rights abuses and the increased potential for AI-fueled military dominance.

Broadly speaking, by emphasizing collaborative AI governance and data frameworks, the U.S. and Singapore were speaking what Capri called “code language for the formation around ideological values.”

In essence, while China has established strict data controls requiring companies operating there to localize data and share data decryption keys, the U.S. and Singapore have reiterated their commitment to a more-open approach taken by liberal democracies when it comes to data use and tech interoperability. In the U.S.-Singapore relationship, those sorts of controls would not apply, Capri said.

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