Google, IBM and Microsoft have joined with top research universities to prod the federal government to create a nationwide shared cloud-computing platform, saying it is urgently needed to keep the U.S. from falling behind foreign competitors.
A national research cloud would open the doors of Big Tech companies’ data to academic outsiders. It could mean that companies such as Google would hand over the keys to data collected during the coronavirus crisis, such as details on users’ movements during government-imposed social distancing.
“A National Research Cloud will give academic researchers the tools needed to advance artificial intelligence far into the future,” said John Etchemendy, co-director of the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence, in a statement. “It will also elevate the ability of all colleges and universities to provide the research and teaching needed to maintain our competitiveness in AI.”
The more than 20 companies, institutions and organizations advocating for the national research cloud have expressed support for a bipartisan roadmap moving through Congress for the government to begin developing the cloud system.
Sens. Rob Portman, Ohio Republican, and Martin Heinrich, New Mexico Democrat, have introduced legislation to assemble technical experts from the private sector to draw up a blueprint for the federal government to implement. Companion legislation was introduced simultaneously in the House by Reps. Anna Eshoo, California Democrat, and Anthony Gonzalez, Ohio Republican.
“United States investment in Research & Development has enabled remarkable innovations, including the microchip, internet, supercomputers, and the Human Genome Project,” said Jeff Dean, Google Research senior vice president, in a statement. “A National AI Research Resource will help accelerate U.S. progress in artificial intelligence and advanced technologies by providing academic researchers access to the cloud computing resources necessary for experiments at scale.”
Google currently provides aggregated and anonymized datasets to individual researchers on a case-by-case basis. After tracking the location of 300 million people, Google delivered the data on its smartphone users’ movements to scientists who made requests deemed reasonable.
The company has indicated that it requires researchers accessing users’ movement data to agree to Google’s terms that block transmission of the anonymized data from landing in the hands of others, including America’s foreign adversaries.
Google refused to answer questions about whether it would make the same dataset available on any forthcoming national research cloud.
The Trump administration has increasingly disclosed the sophisticated efforts of hostile foreign powers to capture or steal American research. This month, the National Institutes of Health revealed that it had identified 399 “scientists of possible concern” over undisclosed ties to foreign governments who also collected grants from NIH. Some 93% of the scientists tagged by NIH failed to disclose foreign support coming from China.
A revamped national counterintelligence strategy announced this year pointed to China as growing more emboldened and the strategy revealed that foreign intelligence entities had embedded themselves into American academic and research institutions and U.S. national labs. The creation of a central hub of research on a shared-cloud system likely would create a new target-rich environment for America’s adversaries that the government would be charged with protecting.